Monday 20 November 2017

John Greene: Behind before they even get going

The new government is struggling to understand the world of Irish sport. We have no idea what the government’s plans to fund sport are for next year, never mind the next four years.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy
The new government is struggling to understand the world of Irish sport. We have no idea what the government’s plans to fund sport are for next year, never mind the next four years.’ Photo: Ramsey Cardy
John Greene

John Greene

As hard as it might be to fathom right now, we are technically at the start of the four-year Olympic cycle leading to Tokyo in 2020. And getting off to the best possible start right from the beginning of the cycle is . . . oh, who are we kidding?

No matter how much we might want to believe otherwise, things are a mess right now. Even Jim McDaid, a former sports minster and sparring partner of Pat Hickey, came in from the cold last week to try and fill the void with his tuppence ha'penny worth. How we've missed Jim and his pearls of wisdom.

It's not that there isn't good news to report, or that there aren't good things happening - and maybe we'll start with that - it's just that there is no way of ignoring the chaos. It is all-consuming.

The Federation of Irish Sport is an organisation I have long admired. It represents all the country's recognised sport governing bodies, and the local sports partnerships, and it does so extremely well. It operates largely in the background, away from the bright lights of publicity, helping all the organisations it represents with all sorts of issues, from governance to financial, and everything in between.

On Friday, the Federation took the unusual step of issuing a press release. Clearly it felt compelled to, recognising not just that the next Olympic cycle has begun but also feeling that some of its member associations are not getting the recognition they deserve for the work they are doing.

"Despite the various controversies that arose in relation to the Olympic Games in Rio, the fact is that these were one of the most successful Games for Ireland and for the sportsmen and sportswomen that comprised Team Ireland," said the Federation, adding that "the achievements of our athletes deserve more widespread praise and acclamation".

It's a fair point but unfortunately, as noted last week, the good cannot be separated from the bad because to ignore one in favour of the other is to make a false assumption about Irish sport's current standing.

Anyway, the Federation goes on to highlight the good news stories from Rio and if only we could take them in isolation, some are very good indeed. Medals in sailing and rowing, 14 top 10 finishes, Thomas Barr, and being represented in 14 different sports are among the highlights mentioned.

"Our team did the country proud, and once again our sportsmen and sportswomen were great ambassadors for the nation. They deserve to be celebrated, not alone for their achievements over the past two weeks, but also for their dedication over the years as they put in the time and effort that allows them to compete at the highest levels.

"And while the Federation does recognise that there were controversies that will undoubtedly continue to generate publicity, they are not the athletes' story and nor should they be."

A good point, well made, and no-one can disagree.

The problem for Irish sport - and the suspicion is that those closely associated with Irish sport are acutely aware of this - is that just as the athletes and what they achieved are part of our story, so the failed drugs test, the ticket touting controversy, the alleged betting activity by two boxers and the string of poor performances in some high-profile sports are also part of our story.

What is badly needed now is to bring order to the disorder. What is badly needed is leadership. Where will it come from?

As far as the Olympic cycle goes, we are already in trouble. The Irish Olympic movement is in disarray. Pat Hickey has been its figurehead for almost three decades. He has been the go-to man for any athlete or organisation in need of an Olympic-sized leg-up. He is currently incarcerated in Brazil.

The chief executive is Stephen Martin, still in Rio awaiting the all-clear from police to return home. He has been helping the local authorities with their investigation into allegations of ticket touting. Brazilian police also obtained warrants to seize the passports of the two vice presidents - Willie O'Brien and John Delaney - so they could be questioned.

The Olympic Council of Ireland's board, which has belatedly jumped into action. However, no matter what the outcomes of the police investigation in Brazil and the non-statutory inquiry here are, there remain serious questions around governance at the OCI that are unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

There is also the issue of leadership. With Hickey having stood aside temporarily, there is a hole at the top of the organisation and all previous assumptions about who might or might not be filling it are currently on hold. But through the crisis of these past few weeks, it has been very difficult to discern what the leadership structure is at the moment, or who has taken the mantle. The OCI has resembled a large ship adrift at sea.

Still, writing the OCI out of the Irish sporting landscape is not a straightforward matter, no matter what Jim McDaid might think. The OCI falls under the protection of the all-powerful International Olympic Committee, which is not about to recognise any other body in this jurisdiction, least of all one like Sport Ireland which is under direct State control. As we all know the IOC abhors State intervention in the Olympic movement.

Then there is the position Sport Ireland finds itself in at the start of the 2020 cycle. Billy Walsh is gone. Gary Keegan is going. The golden child of Irish sport - boxing - is in crisis. The new government is struggling to understand the world of Irish sport. We have no idea what the government's plans to fund sport are for next year, never mind the next four years. Meanwhile, the likes of the UK and New Zealand are already pretty much up and running. For them, it's a case of Tokyo here we come.

The post-Olympic review will soon be underway and we should have strong feedback before the end of the year. Those sporting organisations which are in good health - and in fairness there are several of those - will already have a very good idea of exactly where their high performance programmes are at and what steps need to be taken to progress further. Others willing to learn will need some help while those more reluctant to change will need to be shown the way forward.

Many of our athletes with ambitions of qualifying for Tokyo already have an idea of what their pathway to 2020 is. But all the uncertainty that's swirling around right now, even down to funding, is counter-productive to any properly functioning high-performance system. Everything needs to work in harmony. That certainly is not the case now. In four years' time, as the dust settles on Tokyo, whatever has happened, don't forget how it all began.

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