Sunday 20 October 2019

Sailing launches home of its own but funding issues remain

An impression by Kota Architects of Irish Sailing’s new mobile performance headquarters and new launch pontoon beside the Commissioners of Irish Lights building in Dún Laoghaire
An impression by Kota Architects of Irish Sailing’s new mobile performance headquarters and new launch pontoon beside the Commissioners of Irish Lights building in Dún Laoghaire

John Greene

Ireland has won 31 Olympic medals. There was a time, not so long ago, when these victories by supremely talented men and women were almost entirely as a result of their own endeavours. They had achieved success in spite of the system they came from, not because of it. It was a random event.

Thankfully, Ireland has been moving in the right direction and bit by bit proper systems - or, as they like to refer to them now, pathways - are being put in place. The majority of the Olympic sports are far better equipped to compete. There's a lot less left to chance when it comes to trying to win medals these days.

The Irish sporting movement has been on a journey in the last decade, striding to lift itself out of the dark ages. Progressive associations have looked around the world to learn how to be better - in and out of the arena - so as to put the sort of structures in place which foster proper functioning high performance environments for their most talented athletes.

The associations also talk to each other, and learn from each other, more than was the case before. Although not an Olympic sport, the achievements of Cricket Ireland have been one great example for others to follow: improvements on the pitch followed on from serious and rapid improvements in how the game was run. And so, sports like gymnastics, hockey, swimming, triathlon, modern pentathlon and sailing have all put programmes in place to improve how they run their affairs and how they give their best athletes every chance to compete as equals on the world stage.

Some had further to travel than others, but with the sharing of knowledge and the employment of bright and ambitious personnel in key positions they are advancing.

The ongoing development of the sports campus helps. So too does the carding scheme for high performance athletes. So does the core funding for the sporting bodies. And the sports capital programme. And Sport Ireland, and the Federation of Irish Sport . . . But the government could be doing more.

Irish sport does not expect wholesale hand-outs from the State but there are simple steps which could be taken which would accelerate the improvements.

The most obvious is to introduce multi-annual funding so that sports in the four-year Olympic cycle have more certainty surrounding their plans and the money which underpins them. Currently, the amount of money to be spent on sport each year is announced in the Budget. Successive sports ministers have spoken in favour of this change, including the current Taoiseach, but it has yet to happen.

The other is to change the rules around tax relief for those who make financial donations to a sport. At the moment, only contributions made to capital projects are eligible for tax relief and this needs to be changed so that patrons can also help to fund the day to day costs of running high performance programmes and other aspects of sport in Ireland.

On Friday, Irish Sailing announced plans for a novel new performance headquarters in Dún Laoghaire, another governing body showing its ambition. It is the latest step in the association's bid to prepare Irish sailors for the Olympics and all the major events in the sailing calendar. Having looked in some detail at other successful nations, it became apparent to Irish Sailing that this was the only country at that level without a performance centre.

The new HQ, which also includes a new launch pontoon, means that all the sailors' needs will be in one place, which is not currently the case. Again, this shows how sports are constantly looking to create the right environment for athletes.

"We're the only Olympic sport I think without our own HQ," says Irish Sailing's performance director James O'Callaghan. "Obviously Abbotstown is fantastic but it was never going to work for us. It's very important for the sailors to have a place that they can call home."

The novelty comes from the fact that the HQ will be mobile. "We'll have three 40-foot containers, and one of them will be made with a view to shipping it to Tokyo," added O'Callaghan.

The containers will have space for briefings and athlete education, a gym, gear storage and a boat maintenance area. The briefing room will be transported to the next Olympics. "With the way sailing works, each team has its own private space on the marina because we are always remote from the actual Games, so each team brings its own container," adds O'Callaghan. "It's important because it's your private space, where you can get away from the hubbub."

But there is another important point: the project is being entirely funded by the sport, through the Irish Sailing Foundation. This foundation was set up to centralise donations and fundraising activities into one pool in order to maximise the benefit to the sport. Like many sports, money often came into it aimed specifically at one person or team, but sailing set out to change that and to persuade potential donors to embrace the real value of the foundation's work. Several of its performance programmes have benefited from this new approach, and now it has reaped the ultimate reward, in the form of the new performance centre.

O'Callaghan says the sport could benefit even more if the government extends the tax relief scheme. Irish Sailing has been among the many sporting bodies lobbying for this change. Last week, the Sunday Business Post reported that Tánaiste Simon Coveney had expressed his support for it directly to Leo Varadkar, and it's thought he too is broadly supportive, increasing hopes that it may figure in this year's Budget.

One of the key recommendations in Sport Ireland's review of the Rio games was that sports should become more self-sufficient and less reliant on State funding. Sailing's initiative is showing how to maximise the benefits of that, following in the footsteps of other progressive associations and at the same time showing the Government just how sport consistently measures up to high standards when it comes to getting bang for its buck.

Most of our sports organisations know what they are doing. They just need to be trusted and supported - as Irish Sailing is showing. It's worth remembering that 11 of our 31 medals have come in the last three Olympics.

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