Winning even more of an uphill task for Irish athletics after budget cuts
We will have to rely on the exceptions such as Rob Heffernan for success from now on
If Rob Heffernan didn’t deliver in 2013, he was “back on the dole”, the reality he reckons most elite Irish athletes face. Photograph: Inpho
They were moments into this week’s big radio interview when the subject of money came up. Not Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin on Today with Seán O’Rourke – but Rob Heffernan and Jacqui Hurley on Sunday Sport.
“It was only afterwards,” Heffernan was saying, “that I heard of all the people, back home, betting money on me. Because I was so totally removed from it all, like.”
With that Hurley mentioned she was actually one of them, getting him at 3-1 to win the gold medal, on the morning of his 50km walk at the World Championships in Moscow – cutely believing that someday, given Heffernan’s consistency, it was going to happen. She didn’t reveal how much she won, and no harm. No one likes putting an exact price on their sporting winnings, or indeed losses, but money, we all know, always plays some part.
Heffernan has been in the fast lane of the interview circuit since winning that World title in August, and deservedly so, although he’s always better heard than read, thanks to that beautifully moaning Cork accent, and armed with wit and self-knowledge, Sunday’s interview played out like a rhapsody.
The mood shifted a little when Hurley narrowed the subject to funding, and Heffernan duly responded – recalling how at the end of 2006, aged 28, coming off two stress fractures, and two hernia operations, he was told in no uncertain terms his race was over.
Without the unfailing support of his wife, Marian, he would have walked away: instead, just 10 weeks later, he walked an A-standard for the Beijing Olympics.
Still, at the start of this year, he was “constantly stressed out about money,” training at altitude, worrying were his two kids going hungry at home: despite his fourth place in the London Olympics, if Heffernan didn’t deliver in 2013, he was “back on the dole”, the reality he reckons most elite Irish athletes face.
“The Chinese race – walking coach is on a €1 million contract through to the Rio Olympics,” he said. “I’m trying to run my athletics programme, and my family, on €40,000 a year.”
Indeed this year, Marian gave up her own running career to support her husband, serving as his full-time coach and manager, and at least part-time psychologist - and that, he said, “all the work she does, is saving me €30-40,000 a year.”
It’s easily forgotten how many Irish athletes, and the sporting federations themselves, exist from day-to-day, watching every cent in their bank accounts. A world champion like Heffernan is no exception. Against that backdrop came Tuesday’s news of the latest budgetary cut in core funding for Irish sport – down €3.1 million, to €40 million, from a peak of €57.3 million in 2008.
It may take a while for these cuts to trickle down to Heffernan, but they’ll race down to the young or emerging athletes hoping someday to reach his status. Essentially, this €40 million is what the Irish Sports Council gets to run Irish sport, from the very elite to basic participation (one, ideally, driving the other): that’s not a lot of money, when they’re already stretched, and already revised their grants scheme in order to maximise the return on their investments.