Sunday 21 July 2019

John Greene: 'Structures are beginning to match ambition'

'Sport Ireland believes that one third of the governing bodies affiliated to it are functioning extremely well, and another third are trying to make strides in the right direction but just need a helping hand.' Stock photo: PA
'Sport Ireland believes that one third of the governing bodies affiliated to it are functioning extremely well, and another third are trying to make strides in the right direction but just need a helping hand.' Stock photo: PA

John Greene

The indoor arena at the National Sports Campus was a happy place last week. There were smiles all round as funding increases for Irish sport, and our top level athletes, were confirmed.

There is nothing new in this country about a politician and some sports chiefs taking pleasure in handing out the cash to sport, but this time it felt different. And it looked different too.

For starters, let's take the backdrop, the state-of-the-art indoor arena, which has been described as the jewel in the crown at the campus. It's not the best in the world, indeed it may not even be close to being the best in the world. But it's everything, and more, we could want.

And of all the things to admire about the arena, what most came to mind sitting trackside last week was that those charged with developing the campus had delivered it ahead of schedule and - wait for it - under budget. This is noteworthy in the context of the storm raging about the children's hospital.

Indeed, the whole campus stands as a monument to good planning and proper management. It is a fantastic facility and, so far, every project has been completed on or close to budget, proving that it can be done. For so long, other government departments have looked down their noses at sport and yet there's a lot to be learned from sport's ability to use public money properly. It wasn't always like this, but at least things have moved on. The fiasco around the children's hospital shows that Irish sport is a leader in this regard, not a follower.

So this was the backdrop as a fresh-faced and fit looking minister, Brendan Griffin, led the speakers in announcing an increase in funding for the national governing bodies, or most of them at least.

There was a confidence in the air which wasn't always evident at previous funding announcements. It was a failing of this system in the past that the swagger which often accompanied these occasions had little of substance behind it. Times have changed.

The development of the sports campus and the gradual relocation of Irish sport and top athletes there, has clearly changed our outlook for the better. Now, when at last the government increases sports funding, there is a sense that we are better equipped to capitalise.

Sport Ireland believes that one third of the governing bodies affiliated to it are functioning extremely well, and another third are trying to make strides in the right direction but just need a helping hand. That leaves around 20 struggling to modernise, but it's a major improvement on where we were five years ago. It's a case of a lot done, more to do.

The likes of Athletics Ireland, the Irish Sailing Association, the Irish Athletic Boxing Association, Hockey Ireland, Paralympics Ireland, Horse Sport Ireland, Swim Ireland and Rowing Ireland have attained a level of trust with Sport Ireland, allowing them to have greater say, and to manage their own high performance programmes. They have also received additional funding in recognition of that. It is no coincidence that these are among the sports which are leading the way on the international stage.

The most significant development last week, though, was confirmation that athletes who have qualified for direct funding from Sport Ireland will be funded for two years. This is the first meaningful step towards funding athletes in the Olympic sports on a four-year cycle to give them every chance of peaking at the right time. Whatever an athlete has been awarded for 2019 is the minimum they will receive again next year, and those who improve their performances will be in line for an increase in 2020. This provides our top athletes with certainty, and allows them to plan properly for the run-up to Tokyo in July and August of next year.

Our top-funded athletes, who each receive €40,000, can now leave no stone unturned in their preparations. For the record, the athletes in receipt of the highest level available are Thomas Barr, Rhys McClenaghan, Joe Ward, Kellie Harrington, Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop, Niamh McCarthy, Noelle Lenihan, Arthur Lanigan-O'Keeffe, Paul and Gary O'Donovan, and Sanita Puspure.

It has been a slow march forward, but the environment and the structures are finally starting to come close to matching our ambition.

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