Focus needs to be on medals, not money


ATHLETICS:With so much attention being focused on who gets what when the grants are dished out, athletes are losing sight of the real goal, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

WITH THE possible exception of drugs, qualifying times, and how much free gear they can pull from their sponsors, is there anything our athletes appear more obsessed about right now? And not just in this most sacred of Olympic years.

Sometimes it actually borders on hysteria, paranoia even, and it doesn’t have to be this way. But it seems there is only one thing they can’t get enough of when it comes to the fun and games and I’m not talking about luck, or indeed medals. It doesn’t even talk, it swears, and it is of course money.

No athlete will ever admit that they go into sport for the cash (not on the record, anyway). But you should hear how most athletes react when they’re told their cash is cut (all off the record, unfortunately). Then tell them what some other athletes are getting and all hell breaks loose.

It’s not so much a case of “show me the money!” but rather “show me who got the money?”

So when the Irish Sports Council announced on Tuesday that €10,521,500 of our precious taxpayers’ money is needed to fund our finest athletes this year then obviously some people want to know where exactly it’s going – and not just the athletes themselves. That’s a lot of hard cash to be throwing about, especially considering it doesn’t include rugby, soccer, or GAA, and when last I checked we were still in the grip of a recession.

Let’s see how that breaks down: €6.68 million, the biggest chunk, will fund the high performance programmes of 20 governing bodies of sport, mainly the Olympic sports, such as athletics, boxing, swimming, sailing, etc, and completely separate to their so-called “core” funding; €1.5 million goes to the high performance unit of the Irish Institute of Sport; and the remaining €2.34 million is divided out to 118 athletes, and three teams, across 22 sports.

This €2.34 million allocation – officially known as the “carding scheme” – always makes for interesting reading and this year is no exception. You’d think most of these 118 athletes would be pretty happy with what they got, although if evidence via Twitter is anything to go by then apparently not. As it turned out, 27 of them qualified for the full “podium” amount of €40,000 for the year (although five of these, in a sort of compromise, actually only got either €30,000 or €20,000).

Another 19 got the second tier “world class” amount €20,000 for the year (although again, three of those actually only got €15,000). The rest all got between €6,000 to €12,000 as either a third tier “international”, or a junior and development squad.

I won’t bore you with any more details than that – even if the devil really is in the detail.

As a PR exercise and flaunting of our heroically unique passion for sport last Tuesday’s announcement was smooth and precise, especially the bit about us winning 106 medals in this latest “Olympic cycle”, and really didn’t leave much room to quibble.

The underlying premise was that no one wanted to rock the boat six months away from the London Olympics, even if that left some of us wondering why certain “podium” athletes walk away with €40,000, when they’ve little or no chance of qualifying for the London, while others walk away with only half that, or in some cases nothing at all, when they’ll definitely be in London, and may even make it onto the podium.

As Abraham Lincoln said, you can’t please all of the people all the time. No one ever said the carding scheme was completely fair, and the sports council has usually marketed it as a work in progress. So when some athletes come out complaining about what they did or didn’t get, at a time when a lot of people in this country are losing their jobs, homes, and businesses – and worst of all the access to proper health care – do we really want to hear it? It wasn’t always this way.

In the good old days of Corinthian spirit and pure amateurism, money played no part in the recipe for sporting success. No one expects to go back to those days, but this apparent obsession with grant money can’t be a healthy thing, and it may be that even the Irish Sports Council now realise the carding scheme has run its last race.

What they also flagged on Tuesday was a potentially sweeping review of the carding scheme, not just because they’re anticipating a minimum five per cent cut in their own Government funding in 2013, and in 2014.

That review is already underway, with a preliminary report due in June, for implementation once the London Olympics are over. Among the considerations already agreed are the actual objectives of the scheme, the number of sports currently supported plus the categories of support, the performance-based criteria for each sport, and the future direction of the carding scheme.

Perhaps the time is ripe to go even further, try something a little more radical. There was some very impressive footage released this week of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association at their training camp in the Curragh, where the focus is on the last of the London Olympic qualifiers. (Just check out Katie Taylor sparring with Paddy Barnes.)

The entire group are out running at 6am on the open plains, then busying themselves with some old-fashioned military exercises, such as dragging old tyres behind them via a rope.

Irish boxers have always prided themselves on such Spartan or even primitive training methods, even travelling to such grim locations as Vladivostok – which begs the question why so many of them still get €40,000 to spend.

It reminded me of some of the training scenes witnessed in Kenya last December, where all the distance runners are up at 6am, for the first of three daily training sessions, and none of them will ever see one cent of grant money in their entire lives.

This training camp mentality, where athletes work to inspire and support each other, may not be easily transferred to Ireland, but some of the theories can – and probably already are, in places like Letterkenny Athletic Club.

What if the sports council took that €2.34 million in 2013, and instead of throwing it out to athletes, put it directly into facilities, coaches, and training camps? Does it make sense that they’ve spent €86 million on high performance grants since 2001, and we still don’t have a proper indoor running facility?

Imagine how many young Irish distance runners you could send to train in Kenya for three weeks with €40,000?

And how many of these “podium” allocations would it have taken to save the Belfield track? Perhaps these are the questions the sports council should be asking in their review of the carding scheme.

If you really want to make some savings, get the best return on your investment, you start by cutting out the middle man. It might be initially painful, but ultimately necessary if our athletes are to become a little less obsessed about money, and a little more obsessed about medals – which in Olympic year is all they should be obsessing about.