The improved weather will undoubtedly push some kind of return to organised sport on to the political agenda in the coming days and weeks – in which realm, it is worth noting a letter from 80 sportspeople in Northern Ireland to the Stormont Executive last week.
Signed by well-known figures from across the sporting spectrum, it urges the political powers in the north to take “immediate action to mandate the resumption of youth sport in Covid-safe environments so as to begin to address the wellbeing crisis among our young people”.
One of the 80 signatories to the Stormont letter is Armagh’s All-Ireland winning defender and performance sport manager at Queen’s University, Aidan O’Rourke. It emerged from conversations he and other coalface operators were having late last year, born of the frustration of seeing all the work that had been done to put protocols in place in sports clubs across the province ignored once greater restrictions came in.
“It’s a movement that has been coming together kind of underground since before Christmas,” says O’Rourke. “We have been holding back on it and asking ourselves should we go with it a few times. And then when the figures post-Christmas were as bad as they were, we knew it wasn’t the right time because obviously you don’t want to come across or be painted as a load of Covid-deniers. Nothing could be further from the truth. My parents are at home, cocooning, patiently waiting on their vaccine and I am extremely careful around Covid.”
In a complicated world, their essential argument is straightforward. Every sports club did their bit last summer to put the machinery in place to allow youth sport to happen. Covid officers, temperature checks, advance forms, all the rest of it. Youth sport is taking place in countries right across Europe, sanctioned by governments who reason that the mental health risk of banning it outweighs the viral risk of allowing it to go ahead.
“Ask any parents and they’ll tell you the cost of their kids not playing sport right now,” O’Rourke says. “Disappearing personalities, children withdrawing entirely within themselves, right up to severe mental health, self-harm. I’m not saying that sport would be a silver bullet to stop all that. But it could have been alleviated at least to some extent by giving them the structure of sport.
“You’re talking about a generation of kids who have no school to go to, who are crying out for the structure of a few training sessions a week to look forward to. Whatever about primary school aged kids – they have their imaginations to entertain themselves and parents to entertain them – but once you go into that 10-16 age bracket, it’s social media, it’s screen time flat out. From our perspective, the people who make these decisions have the opportunity to offset some of that.
“The science is clear – this can all be done safely. Other jurisdictions have done it. The Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, France – these are all countries where youth sport is being preserved through accredited sports clubs right now. They recognise it’s safe. They’ve looked at the science.”
O’Rourke doesn’t spare his own organisation from criticism on this front. Quite the opposite, in fact. From where he’s standing, the advocacy put forward by 80 disparate sporting figures could be done much more effectively by the GAA alone.
“As a parent, I am hugely frustrated with the big sporting bodies. I am angry with the GAA and its position and I have been throughout this. The move to lock the gates on club grounds, I don’t even have the words to articulate my anger on that. It’s such a clear disconnect between the leadership and the grassroots.
“The GAA have a much more powerful platform than we do writing a letter. They are having constant conversations with the Government. They can present the case, they have the ear of Government. They can lay out the science and say, ‘Tell us why this won’t work.’ And if they don’t get movement this time, they might get some the next time.
“But you won’t hear any of the major sporting bodies criticise the Government over this because it’s all linked to how we get out of it. There are funding issues at play, there’s a furlough scenario to manage, they’re not going to rattle cages. At this point, we’re hopefully not too far from coming out of it all anyway so NGBs are going to be prudent and not sticking their head above the parapet. And to an extent, I understand that.
“But as a parent I don’t understand it. We took this on because these kids needed a voice. Their sporting bodies weren’t sticking up for them. They weren’t making a case about how advantageous it would be for the overall health of young people to be playing sport, nobody was making that case. There is a broad brush of regulation here that is punishing our children when they badly need our support.”