Saturday 16 December 2017

Progress remains powered by results

John Greene

John Greene

As hard as it might be to believe, these are busy weeks for Ireland's Olympic and Paralympic preparations for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Last week, representatives from the Olympic Council of Ireland and Paralympics Ireland were in the Brazilian city for their first serious scouting mission. It is now commonplace ahead of major games to check out the location, looking to get on the ground as early as possible to identify a suitable base for Irish athletes.

Closer to home, the next couple of weeks will see a couple of important developments.

Firstly, this week, the Irish Sports Council will publish its review of the London games. The council is understood to be satisfied that it is a thorough, and forthright, piece of work. There will be no surprises for the national governing bodies covered in the report – all have had ample time to review those elements of it which concern them. One NGB – Athletics Ireland – actually sought additional information and feedback from its Olympic athletes.

Secondly, the following week the sports council will publish its grant allocations for the year. All of the NGBs have been informed of their allocation already, so again there should be no surprises. Certainly, given comments made by Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar before Christmas, Paralympics Ireland and the Irish Amateur Boxing Association will not have been worried even before they were informed of their funding. The minister said it was important that the government acknowledges "Ireland's summer sporting success by protecting financial support for boxing, paralympians, and some other sports".

In previous years the council staggered publication of its annual grant allocations – separating high-performance funding for NGBs and athletes from the core funding for sport but, for the first time, this year all the details will be published in one block.

It's hard not to think, however, that we're almost at the end of the first quarter and some athletes and sporting bodies more than likely already feel that valuable time has been lost. It is very difficult for athletes to make plans for their year without knowing how much, if any, funding they will receive. Given that the sports council is a statutory body which is entirely dependent on the government of the day for its budget, it's clear that change is needed in this area and that the politicians need to take a progressive step forward.

Rightly or wrongly, we live in an age when results at the major championships are what influence where and how money is spent, with the greatest weight of all going to Olympic achievement. So the ideal scenario is that a system of multi-annual funding should be introduced. This saves money in the long run, and it also increases chances of success, as evidenced by the UK's performance at the last Olympics.

Sadly, as is the way of things in this country – whether rich or broke – the best possible route forward is generally the least likely to happen. Multi-annual funding gives a sense of confidence and assurance to sporting organisations and their elite athletes, so long as you don't over-commit. There has to be an inherent flexibility so that the funding can be allowed to follow those with the greatest potential. Naturally, this model best suits the practice of the pursuit of medals within the confines of a four-year Olympic cycle; it is less well suited to those models which are centred on participation.

But even allowing for the fact that, politically, multi-annual funding is a long shot there are still options for the government to help sport's quest for more certainty. And given that we are sadly lacking in a coherent medium- to long-term vision for sport at political level, it is probably also wishful thinking to suggest that the notion of sports funding could function a full 12 months in advance – even if it is just in the provision of estimates.

There has been talk that the Budget may be brought forward to October this year, at the behest of the European Union (naturally), and this may be the best hope for now. If we use the current timetable, that could see the sports council announcing its funding allocations in January, as opposed to March. Not ideal, but a small step forward nonetheless.

It will be interesting, in the meantime, to digest the findings in the Olympic review and then to see how the sports council intends to allocate its money. Most attention will focus on the high-performance end, not least because the new carding scheme which is being phased in from this year has a changed emphasis and because there will be some high-profile athletes who will lose out as a result of that.

In some ways, the next few weeks will see an ushering out of the old guard, who will give way to fresh young talent. Last weekend's European Indoor Championships showed how this process is already in train. For individual sports, the transition can be difficult, but in the public consciousness it is less so.

And so, to stick with last weekend as an example, Derval O'Rourke's great career is now nearing its end, but for the likes of Ciarán ó Lionáird and Ciara Everard the journey is just beginning. You could say the same for Kenny Egan in boxing, the sport set to receive the most funding from the sports council following the success of London. Egan gave way to Joe Ward, finally, and to a new breed of boxing talent. Having said that, the likes of O'Rourke (pictured) and Egan have been the inspiration for those who now seek to supplant them. Such is the nature of the beast.

Irish Independent

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