Sporting cash must go where returns are highestand not just to make up numbers
High performance has to mean exactly that, says Eamonn Sweeney
Focusing your efforts on a sport where you're particularly strong is a tried-and-trusted method for a small country wanting to score big at the Olympics. Slovakia in canoeing, Georgia in wrestling and New Zealand in rowing are prime examples. And to this list we can now add Ireland in boxing.
Our four-medal haul from London in the sport which has yielded the majority of our Olympic medals saw us easily outstrip nations with far greater financial and population resources, many of them with enviable boxing traditions. Only Russia (6) and Great Britain (5) won more medals in the ring than Ireland while Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Cuba won the same amount.
It's a record those involved in Irish boxing can be very proud of but the best thing is that it's come as no surprise. Ireland's London performance doesn't just follow on from Beijing where our total of three medals was only bettered by Cuba and the host nation, it comes at the end of a four-year cycle when boxers have built on the foundation laid by Kenneth Egan, Paddy Barnes and the late Darren Sutherland.
At world and European championships Ireland has been consistently among the medals. Not just at senior level but, and this is important, at junior, youth and schoolboy level. Our current success story is one which will almost certainly continue. The teenage boxers now representing us at international level have every right to think of themselves as future Olympians and maybe even future medallists. They will box accordingly in the major tournaments because success breeds success. It's a virtuous circle.
Yet this is not the time to be resting on our laurels. Five medals is more than anyone would have predicted before the start of the Games yet it's not exceptional. The next step is to work out how we can join the real overachievers, the likes of New Zealand and Denmark, nations with similar populations to our own, who between them have already won 19 medals at this Olympics. We have already moved up the ladder to an extent which was almost unthinkable following the medalless fiasco of the 2004 Games. If we can do that, there's no reason we can't aim to boost the medal total into double figures in 2016.
Perhaps the best way of doing this would be to stop spreading ourselves too thin and focus on the sports in which we could have genuine medal chances in the future. Ever since Beijing, Ireland's best boxers have had their sights focused on London and they have received their just reward. The focus on the Olympics has been so single-minded that the competition simply to win a chance to compete in a qualifying event for the Games was absolutely ferocious. Every member of the boxing team travelled to London with genuine medal hopes. Perhaps from now on we should start concentrating on sports where we can say the same in 2016.
Cian O'Connor's tremendous redemptive effort in the showjumping put the seal on an excellent games for Irish equestrianism. The achievement of the three-day eventing team in finishing fifth and of Naas rider Aoife Clark in finishing seventh in the individual competition didn't get enough credit. But it suggested that there is real medal potential here for Rio as there is in the team showjumping event. Horse Sport Ireland had its grant from the Sports Council cut by 7% after the showjumping team failed to qualify for the Olympics. The subsequent performances suggest the body's funding should be increased.
Niamh O'Sullivan, the former Equestrian Sport manager at HSI and currently programme director of the Equine Business course at NUI Maynooth, observed during the week that, "These results have been achieved on a very limited budget which I'm sure must have been very frustrating to those involved in the training and preparation which was required. Unfortunately, we are not on a level playing field with our main competitors when it comes to the financial investment they put into talent identification and high-performance training . . . it is interesting to ponder the results which might be achieved if the funding stream to equestrian sport was increased." Maybe it's time to find out.
Annalise Murphy (pictured) is another obvious medal hope for Rio while Peter O'Leary and David Burrows' top-ten finish under, shall we say, considerable pressure, underlines the fact that sailing is something where we can compete with the best. And the achievement of Hannah Craig in finishing ninth in the kayaking slalom event following Eoin Rheinisch's fourth place in 2008 and previous near misses by Ian Wiley suggests this event is one we might profitably invest in. Yet at the moment there isn't even a white water facility in this country.
Craig didn't even get any high-performance money from the Sports Council. David Gillick, whose 2012 performances make him the eighth best 400m runner in Ireland, got €40,000. In fairness, Gillick was injured and was never in a position to quality for London. But that made it inexcusable to award him the maximum grant in an Olympic year. Michael Conlan got €20,000.
Times might be tight but what's needed is a little imagination. The old system of shovelling money at underachieving track and field athletes because that's the way things were always done makes no sense anymore. Seventeen athletes received a total of €348,000 in high-performance funding at the start of this year. Only one of them, Robert Heffernan, made the top ten in London. Most of them performed woefully below par.
If we really want to achieve our full potential at the Olympics, we need to start getting more bang for our buck. Where boxing has led, three-day eventing, sailing, canoeing and showjumping are well able to follow if aided by a properly targeted investment programme. It's time to get ruthless about high-performance funding.
Sunday Indo Sport