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

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.

Trickle down
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.

Heffernan was the only Irish athlete to get the maximum podium grant of €40,000 this year (and the fact he was the only one to deliver on that could be argued both ways). But there’s already a lot less money in the pot. In 2008, €2,697,733 was divided out to over 200 athletes, across 20 sports; in 2013, €1,696,000 was divided out to just 81 athletes, across 14 sports, the added fear there being an increase in podium grants of €40,000 (five in boxing, and 10 in Paralympics sport), while those down the line are and will continue to be squeezed out completely.

It was the 2008 round of funding that helped identify and develop the likes of Katie Taylor, John Joe Nevin, Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop, Annalise Murphy, and Aileen Morrison – and without that deeper supply of funding there may soon be no one to replace them.

Back on Today with Seán O’Rourke, neither Noonan nor Howlin were quizzed on the cuts to funding for sport, and understandably so, when Tuesday’s budget left the sick and elderly fearing they can’t afford to live in this country, and now can’t afford to die, either.

“Olympic funding downsized” ran the headline in Thursday’s Athletics Weekly. No, they weren’t picking up the story of how Irish athletes will endure a tough road to Rio 2016, but actually British athletes, too. Because on Monday, UK Athletics announced their list of grant-aided athletes for 2014, cutting the overall numbers from 129 to 113, down from a peak of 152 six years ago.

They do things a little differently: there are 47 “Olympic Podium” athletes, or those being supported for their medal-winning potential in Rio 2016; they also have 67 “Olympic Podium Potential” athletes, or those being supported for their medal-winning potential in Tokyo 2020. That’s the sort of forward-planning sport now requires, while Irish sport, it seems, is being forced into some backward-thinking.

Yet as Athletics Weekly also pointed out, it’s fitting that UK Athletics is ultimately funded by the UK National Lottery, given sport funding is typically a lottery in itself. Of the 48 British athletes listed for development funding post-Beijing 2008, aimed at London 2012, 18 (or 38 per cent) were never heard of again.

However, not one athlete that wasn’t on that list went on to medal in London, which is the more relevant point; because while some athletes will always disappear without trace, no matter how much funding they get, things rarely work the other way round.

What is certain is that every country is looking to maximise its investment in sport, and across as many sports as possible. It may be that by cutting back on our investment we can still rely on the likes of Rob Heffernan, or indeed the feel-good factor that comes with our own heroically intimate Gaelic games.

But that is definitely not maximising our potential, and if it’s medals and trophies on the international stage that we’re after, the Government continues to gamble, while once again lengthening our odds of success.

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