Now let's have our best ever Olympics in Rio
OPINION:A YEAR ago this week, the Team GB that commanded world media headlines was gangs of marauding hooligans looting and burning shops across London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Twelve months on, Team GB, and the mood surrounding it, could not be more transformed. Our neighbours are basking in the glory of unprecedented levels of success in their “home” Olympic Games, sitting third in the medals table. The feel-good vibe was tangible in London last weekend.
We in Ireland have our own Olympic heroes, none greater than the noble Katie Taylor. Yes, we rightfully bask in the glory of their exploits, but I look enviously at the heights being scaled by Team GB. They have managed to transform their sporting fortunes over the course of the last five Olympic Games. At Atlanta in 1996, Britain won 15 medals and came 36th in the medals table.
Our contrasting fortunes are not simply down to population differences – 60 million versus six million. Remember one-third of our Olympic team in London hails from the North, while three of Team GB’s medal winners are from Coleraine, Co Derry. When we look at the sports where Britain has made remarkable strides to become the best in the world, in the water (swimming, sailing, rowing, sailboarding) and on the bike (road-racing, velodrome, BMX), we cannot point to climate or genetic factors that are often cited for the unbeatable achievements of African and Caribbean athletes in field and track events.
So before we get carried away with the fact that London 2012 will be our best Olympics medal return since Melbourne 1956, we should really take stock of what it takes to ensure we can have more podium finishes in Olympic, world and European sports competitions.
No secret formula is involved. Our boxing success demonstrates clearly what is required: it’s the establishment of a fully professional and properly financed elite squad system.
We have no shortage of water sports venues (even Olympic-length swimming pools, the absence of which was often blamed in the past). Ditto when it comes to cycling.
Traditionally, we have had world-beating potential in sports such as showjumping (as Cian O’Connor so masterfully reminded everyone this week), rowing and cycling.
But as our neighbours have demonstrated conclusively, we must invest in securing the best coaches and facilities, we must be able to finance our elite athletes and we must ensure they have the resources to compete against the best in the world, not only every four years at the Olympics, but all along the way as they hone their skills and compete against the best. And that also means paying them grants to meet their living expenses.
In Britain it is interesting to hear UK Sport, the body charged with optimising their performance at the Olympics, constantly cites the importance of the funding provided by the UK lottery.
In the next few days we will hear politicians here rightly lauding the performance of our London team, but it’s really time for them now to put our money where their mouths are. It’s time to ringfence more money from our National Lottery to build – on a selective basis – world-class sporting facilities and elite squads. And this will mean having to prioritise between, say, rowing and cycling, and perhaps hockey, in the quest to back the sports where Ireland is most likely to succeed.
As we can all see and feel this week, it’s not just about sport: it transcends the mere sporting endeavours. In an age when society here, in Britain and elsewhere, is normally obsessing about obesity epidemics, youth alienation and yob culture, what better antidote is there than international sporting success, and what better role models to proffer our young people than the likes of Katie Taylor, Annalise Murphy and Cian O’Connor?
A poster doing the rounds virally in England last weekend summed it all up, contrasting the extraordinary athletic feats of their heptathlon gold medallist, Jessica Ennis, with the normal diet of role models served up to young people by the likes of Big Brother and so-called tabloid celebrities.
Politicians everywhere have limited time horizons, dictated in large measure by the next general election date.
Come 2016, the year here will probably be dominated by political commemoration. But wouldn’t it be nice, too, if we were to have our best ever Olympic Games result in Rio?
The time to ensure that happens needs to begin next week with the “welcome home” speeches of Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring for our London team. Seize the garland, lads!
Stephen O’Byrnes is a director of public relations consultants MKC Communications