Tuesday 19 November 2019

Time to review our system of reviewing

The board of Athletics Ireland will tomorrow consider a report on the Olympic Games. This is a very quick turnaround, especially given the fact that it has still to formally sign off on its review of the Games in Sydney 12 years ago.

The association's president Ciarán ó Catháin went on the record over a week ago to say he wanted a detailed review from the Olympic track and field management in time for this meeting, and that the association would not shy away from asking hard questions.

There were very few highlights for athletics at the Games, with five top-16 finishes -- two of which were posted by Rob Heffernan -- despite the fact that it receives more funding than any other Olympic sport.

Every sport will be reviewing its performance and most will have hard questions to ask too. This will include boxing, despite the fact that it brought home four medals, an extraordinary achievement and a ringing endorsement of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association and the work of its high-performance unit under Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia.

Athletics, by its nature and because it receives significant funding, will always be more in the public domain than others but that does not mean AI should be the only national governing body under the microscope.

The fact that Ireland won five medals in London, and could have won at least another two through Heffernan and Annalise Murphy, means that it is very easy to overlook some plain truths -- the primary one being that no matter what spin is put on it, too much still happens in Irish sport by accident rather than design.

For example, compare Ireland to New Zealand. The five medals won by Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes, John Joe Nevin, Michael Conlan and Cian O'Connor scarcely compare to the 13 won by New Zealand, including five golds. This return equalled the country's previous best from a Games and shows just how far ahead of Ireland it is in terms of strategic planning and preparation.

There is no doubt that Ireland is making progress all the time, but when familiar old failings -- such as unnecessary rows, inexplicably poor performances and selection controversies -- continue to surface then questions need to be asked. And perhaps this is where we start to get into trouble.

Because you have to wonder if the focus of these Olympic reviews is ultimately too narrow. Questions about performance -- or lack of -- by their nature will focus on specifics. This is short-term thinking, which may or may not provide short-term gains, but will certainly not bring about any meaningful improvements in the longer term.

And so, in athletics, we can say the relay row before the Games shouldn't have happened and vow that it won't happen again; or in swimming agree that Gráinne Murphy's illness was such that it might have done more harm than good letting her go to London. But that does not equip NGBs to properly cope with the new set of problems which will surely arise next time.

Then there are those sports like rowing and show jumping which struggled to qualify athletes for the Olympics -- in the case of rowing the lone representative was the product of another country's system. The failure to qualify an Irish team for the show jumping event was a major slip-up.

There are 63 NGBs funded by the Irish Sports Council. Some are well organised and well managed, others are not. And this is the key point.

Should an association which is known to have poor governance, lacks proper strategic vision and has a poor track record in making best use of its state funding, be allowed to sit in judgement on itself? On the other hand, those which are well run are likely to produce more searching reviews still need an external expert input in order to be complete.

There is another key issue in all this, and that is the sports council itself. Any meaningful review has to be able to be critical of the ISC where it is warranted. Sadly, the ISC can be very sensitive to criticism, even when it is designed to be helpful and constructive. And not all associations enjoy a healthy relationship with the council, the IABA being an example, which is obviously not ideal for Irish sport.

We have become obsessed with the idea of Olympic reviews but the problem with this is that it fosters thinking in short-term blocks of months or years.

Indeed, now is as good a time as any for a complete review of the way Irish sport works, from the top down, and for us to start thinking about 10 and 15 years down the road.

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