Ireland's Olympic hopefuls are the latest group in society to highlight some of the anomalies which lie at the heart of the government's phased exit from lockdown. Most of our elite athletes are not able to train properly due to the current Covid-19 restrictions and so far all efforts to get officials in the Department of Health to introduce special waivers have failed.
It doesn't really seem that big of a deal to allow a small group of athletes to begin training again. And yet, it seems as if it is just that - a big deal.
The athletes can, at this stage, be broadly split into two groups: those who have qualified already for next year's games in Tokyo, and those who are still striving to qualify. Ultimately, the longer they are holed up at home, the greater the damage that is being done to all the athletes and their prospects.
"The medals are a big concern," says Shane O'Connor, chair of the Olympic Federation of Ireland's Athletes' Commission. "I mean, some of our medal hopefuls, who haven't qualified yet, may actually be at risk of maybe not being able to qualify because they haven't the opportunity to train, while the other nations are continually moving ahead of them. I think we are doing them a huge disservice."
We hear about it all the time, how in elite sport the margins are so fine between success and failure. Having bought into the lockdown, and the need to follow it, athletes have been getting anxious in recent weeks as they watch their competitors from other countries get a jump on them.
Rhys McClenaghan is one of our main medal hopefuls next year. "Rhys is at home at the moment," says O'Connor. "He's doing what he can pretty much in his garden. From our perspective in gymnastics he's an absolute medal prospect. For us the margins are so small. If you remember back to the world championships, the margins for podium positions were tiny. If he is to have a chance, genuinely, of medalling, he needs to be training just like his European competitors are training. He needs to be back."
The OFI wants athletes to be allowed travel to a training base to resume proper preparations and for a small number of facilities to be opened, including the Institute of Sport on the National Sports Campus. These facilities would only be available to these athletes. "We're all set up and ready to go, and we have been for some time," says Sarah Keane, OFI president. There are protocols in place to facilitate a safe return.
Everyone is aligned - Sport Ireland, OFI, the various national governing bodies, the Department of Sport - but the last hurdle is getting health officials on board.
"There's frustration, there's upset, and there's real concern that they are just going to be uncompetitive," says Keane of the athletes. "We can see it in swimming - almost all the other European nations are back."
There was a lot of frustration in Irish sport when details of the country's roadmap out of lockdown were first released. Sport did not feature, a signal that for all our talk about how far attitudes to sport in this country have moved, that sometimes it feels like things haven't changed that much at all.
"In the Northern Ireland Executive roadmap, sport is in one of the titles," says Keane. "In our roadmap it's not. It's Culture and Society I think. There's references to outdoor recreation and sport, there's references to some of the contact sports, maybe the bigger field sports, but there's nothing referencing their sports specifically. So from our athletes' perspective there's no timeframe around it all.
"If you are to go by the current roadmap, indoor activities are phase three which is a month away; swimming pools are phase four and gyms are phase five, which is in August. The athletes have no idea where they're fitting into this. That is definitely at this stage starting to cause anxiety, real issues whether they've any chance of getting back with a view to being competitive."
The athletes believe now is the time to get back to their preparations. Every day is a training day in elite sport, and every day lost is a training day lost. Not only that, it's also a training day your competitors have gained on you. So you have lost on the double.
"The key is being able to access those facilities because currently our guys are training in their gardens, their front rooms," says O'Connor. "The NGBs have all developed return to sport protocols. I'm involved with Gymastics Ireland so I've seen some of the stuff that Gymnastics Ireland have done. There's been a huge amount of work put into the development of protocols, and not only developing them but they've been overseen by medical professionals. They are robust."
Rowers are prepared to live together in a bubble at their training base; boxers will work on training programmes that will allow for social distancing, and so on.
"We're not asking for a lot," says Keane. "We want the return to be quite conservative because we want it to work. We don't want to be going backwards again either. We support the overall approach to the health and wellbeing of the nation."
She adds: "We feel what we're asking is in line with the risk that's appropriate at this time. We don't believe it will have an impact on the community or the health of the nation in any shape or form. Most of our athletes will travel on their own in cars to get to where they need to go. So they are not going to be on public transport, and putting anybody at risk. Anyway, our performance athletes can't afford to get sick either. They have to do everything they can to keep everybody around them well.
"This is not a group who are going to take any risks with any of these protocols. This is a group who are going to rigidly adhere to them."
There are so many inequities at the heart of the current guidelines for our elite athletes that it makes sense for health officials to listen. For instance, Irish rowers may end up competing against each other for a berth at the Olympics, so one who lives within 5km of a training base now has an artificially unfair advantage over one who doesn't.
"We've been trying for a long time to say to our performance athletes that you can do it in Ireland and we can create the conditions for you to be great, for you to be the best in the world, in this country, and that's one of the reasons there's a big investment in the National Sports Campus, and investment in performance and all that," says Keane. "But now they are probably saying, 'well if I was abroad I'd probably be back training'. It's going against the whole ethos of what we've been trying to create here."
Sunday Indo Sport