Wednesday 21 February 2018

Sport not endearing itself to Varadkar

John Greene

John Greene

Sport is very vulnerable right now. There have been whispers of a cut in the funding of sport next year of between five and 30 per cent and while informed opinion puts the reduction at the lower end of that scale there will still be some tough decisions to be made.

The fact that next year is an Olympic year may mean that any thoughts at political level of extracting greater savings from its spend on sport will be put on hold for 12 months. In that scenario, 2013 could see far greater damage inflicted on sports bodies.

Part of the problem is that we are still not sure where this Government stands in relation to sport; there is no clear policy as yet and there is no clear dynamic discernible as yet between the senior Minister, Leo Varadkar, who has responsibility for transport, tourism and sport, and the Minister for State, Michael Ring.

True there have been some announcements, including capital expenditure in boxing and the swimming pool programme, but we are still awaiting some signs of a coherent strategy.

Varadkar, apparently, has been more engaged of late with the sport part of his brief, which is presumably good news. In fairness, it is a monstrous brief given that it is lumped in with transport and tourism but it is still surprising it has taken him this long.

During an appearance before an Oireachtas committee in July, Varadkar (pictured) did give some insight into his thinking: "Sport and physical activity have huge potential to contribute to the development of a healthier society," he said. "I want to ensure everyone is encouraged and given opportunities to participate in sport and to enjoy all the benefits sport can bring through the development of a healthy lifestyle."

At the same meeting, he also committed to publishing the national audit on facilities and to developing the National Sports Campus at Abbotstown, albeit "on an incremental basis".

But greater direction from Government is needed, as is some sign that there is a real understanding of the true value of sport to the country, both tangible and intangible.

Of course, another big problem for the sport lobby in attempting to persuade the Government of its value is its own tarnished image. Bad press surrounding key players like the Irish Sports Council, Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Greyhound Board -- all in receipt of significant amounts from the State each year -- over the summer are damaging to the cause.

In July, for example, it was reported that the ISC's credit card policy had been breached, although the council confirmed that money found to have been spent on personal items had been refunded.

It was also reported that the ISC paid for business class flights for chief executive John Treacy and chairman Ossie Kilkenny to the Olympics in Beijing, where they stayed in a €490 a night hotel.

It is true that there is a media obsession at the moment with how quangos spent money in recent years, but that does not hide the fact that many of the practices employed by State bodies showed disregard for public money, or that there is an extraordinary level of anger among the public over this issue.

A friend who is self-employed recently told me that the biggest problem with how taxpayers' money is being spent is that those who spend it don't seem to appreciate its value. If you have to go out and earn every euro you spend, he said, you will think very carefully about how you spend it. You will understand its value and respect it accordingly.

The problem has been that an easy come, easy go regimen has operated in Irish quangos for too long, of first-class flights and luxury hotels around the world. True, travel is part and parcel of sport and so officials are going to incur costs, but is it unreasonable to expect that they do so cost-efficiently? Or to expect that the trip will be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis?

One instance that the Sunday Independent has been made aware of concerned an Olympic boxing qualifier in Rome three years ago. The ISC sent three representatives and all three stayed in the Plaza Hotel. They used a professional car company during their stay and the cost of car and chauffeur was €1,100. The boxers, coaches and boxing officials, meanwhile, were ferried to and from their standard hotel to the venue by minibus.

The last time the World Athletics Championships were in the Far East, in Osaka four years ago, Irish athletes travelled standard class and shared rooms while two ISC officials are understood to have travelled business class and stayed at the plush Swissotel Nankai.

Then there are the other problems which have beset State bodies, poor governance, infighting, politicking and incompetence -- all of which ultimately lead to taxpayers' money being wasted.

The latest revelations in the Sunday Independent today about alleged integrity issues at two of Ireland's marquee greyhound stadiums is a further case in point. The revelations sound further alarm bells over the IGB, an organisation which gets about €11m a year from the State and which never seems far from controversy. To think that a leading bookmaker expressed a reluctance to take bets at a major track is a damming indictment of the sport in Ireland.

Sport of course is always an easy target when it comes to budget cuts. This is unfair, and is ill-conceived but there is an unpalatable truth there too: sometimes sport doesn't help itself.

Sunday Indo Sport

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