Sunday 25 February 2018

Ruthless approach needed in gold hunt

Amy Williams, who wasn't born when Britain last won an individual gold medal at the Winter Olympics, smashed the field in the bizarrely named skeleton bob to win by more than half a second after four rounds of death-defying sliding at 90 miles per hour.

For late night TV sports junkies, the skeleton bob is one of those peculiar Olympic events, watched once every four years, that become absolutely compelling for 24 hours and are then forgotten as soon as something more exotic comes along. But for that brief moment in time the bob has you in its grip. The speeds are frightening, particularly since the Whistler course has already claimed one life, and the impacts shuddering when a slider veers marginally off line and smashes her shoulder into the wall.

There is, of course, no earthly reason why Britain should win gold in the skeleton bob, or even silver as it did at the previous Olympics. No earthly reason, that is, other than money. And planning. And supremely talented athletes. When the funding for Britain's winter Olympic sports was divvied up, skeleton bob received £2m of the total fund of £6m. It was hugely disproportionate, provoking dismay and envy from the other sports, but the money was consciously diverted to a discipline in which the British thought they had a genuine chance of winning gold.

Since then Williams and Shelley Rudman, her team-mate and silver medallist in Turin, have had the best training money can buy. Others have suffered in their wake -- Snowsport GB, which ran alpine skiing and snowboarding, went into administration just before the Games -- but there can be no denying the success the money delivered for Williams and skeleton bob (Rudman finished just outside the medals).

The message is clear: if medals are what you want, then funding decisions have to be ruthless. No one can claim (with a straight face, at least) that Williams' victory will lead to a surge in participation in skeleton bob or any other winter sports: the sole objective was to win gold because winning gold is deemed a good thing, an end in itself.

As a policy, it is elitist, performance driven and single-minded -- like top-level sport. It also allows a clear distinction to be drawn between the twin objectives of sports policy: increasing participation in sports generally, and pursuing success at the elite level. One is nakedly, unashamedly selective, the other all-inclusive.

In Ireland we take a different approach, neither ruthless enough on elite sports nor determined enough on participation. Public money is handed out to hundreds of athletes across many disciplines, with hard choices avoided. Boxing, for example, received the most money last week from the Irish Sports Council -- €700,000 of the €5.7m handed out to 16 sports organisation, with individual boxers receiving a further €460,000 of the €2.7m handed out to athletes and development squads. It is without doubt our most successful Olympic sport, one where medals have been won and future medals can be targeted, but there is no hint of disproportionate funding. Doubling the funding to boxing and stripping away funding from dimmer medal prospects would be the logical step if we were deadly serious about elite success. Similar ruthlessness could be applied to individuals -- we could give Derval O'Rourke, a proven winner and medal prospect, triple her current funding of €40,000 a year, similarly Kelly Proper (pictured), who received €12,000. But that would mean funding six, not 18 athletes, or dropping a number of our so-called elite sports from the list.

The decisions are not easy, but for the moment we fall between two stools. Taxpayers' money is scattered across sports and athletes, ostensibly in the name of elite sport. Yet success eludes us (strip away boxers and drug cheats and Ireland's Olympic performances are a catalogue of failure) precisely because we spread our funds too thinly and refuse to ruthlessly target winners.

Eamonn Coghlan, the head of the Irish Sports Council High Performance committee, has made a step in the right direction this year with quarterly assessments for State-aided athletes, but that is a change of process rather than approach. Success demands ruthless focus because otherwise we have the worst of all worlds: high spending, low ambition.

Amy Williams has shown what money can buy, and at what cost. If we do not want to take that approach then we should stop pretending that we are in the business of funding elite sports. All we are doing is part-funding elite participation without giving our very few genuine contenders the wherewithal to compete with the best in the world. It is an approach that promises excellence but delivers mediocrity and contributes to the sense that ISC does not have a firm grip on either side of its remit.

Sunday Independent

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