Critics of GPA awards scheme missing the bigger picture


ON GAELIC GAMES:It’s extraordinary, the potential of the GPA player awards scheme to create controversy. All of five years ago the imminent debate on approving the payments at the 2008 congress was shaping up like some sort of Manichaean conflict between the purity of amateurism and semi-professional encroachment.

In the end it was simply accepted without fuss, the storms raised by its opponents blowing out against the unconcerned instincts of the rank and file.

Last week the subject was revisited when former athlete and broadcaster Jerry Kiernan criticised the fitness and conditioning of inter-county players, contrasting them with those of international athletes. He was speaking in the context of the announcement that the inter-county player grants scheme had been renewed for a further two years.

“I don’t have a high opinion of their fitness or their commitment to fitness. I understand that it means an awful lot to people in the country and from an economic point of view when you’ve got thousands of people going to the games it means a lot to the country.

“If this money – and it’s only a small amount – wasn’t given to them, would it dilute the attendances at the championships? I don’t think so.

“We’re giving so much prominence to a sport that I feel doesn’t deserve it. I believe the GAA people live in a cloistered world, don’t think beyond what they do and they tell themselves that they’re training hard.”

Whereas there is an entertaining irony in an elite runner accusing other sports of self-absorption, Kiernan’s opinions didn’t really merit the fire-storm they ignited.

Personal opinion

He made it clear that this was a personal opinion, a bias, and that the majority of people disagreed with him. He also acknowledged that the money involved – shrunken beyond recognition by successive reductions – was negligible.

Kiernan’s not really a controversialist; he holds a few abrasive opinions and isn’t afraid to state and repeat them. He has refused to comment in broadcasting situations on topical matters in which he has either no interest or expertise.

His declarations of a week ago touched a raw nerve probably because of his view that essentially footballers and hurlers don’t know what real fitness levels involve. The GAA and its players are notoriously touchy when faced with critical observation, particularly from external sources.

For instance when drug testing was introduced 12 years ago there was a flurry of complaints about the imposition on amateur players as well as in some cases a reckless disregard for the consequences of not studying the relevant regulations and complying with them. One player admitted nearly a year after testing had been implemented that he had taken medication without knowing whether its contents were proscribed or not.

Gaelic players also tend to forget that elite athletes are frequently more amateur than top hurlers and footballers in that they have to fend for themselves and prepare without a fraction of the infrastructural back-up available to the country’s largest sports organisation.

The association’s relative wealth creates resentment amongst athletes when they see scarce sports funding going to footballers and hurlers. This is easy to understand but is it reasonable?

The resentment is based on the comparative unworthiness of Gaelic games because of its indigenous nature and lack of international standards as well as a bemusement that the games are so popular whereas it’s hard to interest people in someone doing well in a road race in Latvia regardless of its quality.

It has also been suggested that the GAA has effectively sabotaged Ireland’s athletics strength by siphoning off large numbers of the able-bodied.

The essence of these arguments is easy to debunk. More temperate responses to Kiernan pointed out that there’s more to Gaelic games preparation than sheer physical fitness. It must equip players to perform technical skills at speed and under intense physical pressure.

Wider argument

But it’s the wider argument – why are so many people enthralled by the GAA? – that’s more interesting. Should the maintenance of one of the world’s great indigenous sports organisations not be a matter for celebration? Is achievement simply measured by the accumulation of medals and international competition?

There’s no doubt national pride is uniquely tapped by international achievement. The recent Olympics demonstrated as much with the excitement triggered by the boxers and Katie Taylor in particular; the soccer team in its pomp had the same impact. Nonetheless there’s more to sport than the rare, if wonderful, incidents of international success.

GAA clubs strengthen and build communities even when there’s no success. They provide recreational outlets for all sorts of kids and their wildly varying skill levels. They say to children that they belong regardless of their ability and that doing the best you can and collective effort are valuable to your team and community.

The GPA had been pursuing these grants for years before they came into operation. They were a response to the tax breaks for professional sports people introduced in the 2002 Finance Act.

They were also separately funded when introduced; in other words it’s not certain that the €900,000 (down from the original €3,500,000) involved would even stay in the Irish Sports Council’s coffers if the scheme were to be discontinued.

Paltry as they may now be, the grants are simply a valued recognition of players who by putting on public display their talents, strengthen a sense of belonging all around the country and generate the funding for a huge association of volunteers, who in turn enrich countless local communities.

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