Genesis report points finger at Irish Sports Council


OLYMPICS GENESIS BEIJING REVIEW:NOT FOR the first time Ireland’s Olympic review process has turned into something of a finger-pointing exercise. The Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) got their chance yesterday with the publication of the Irish Team’s Performance in Beijing 2008, carried out independently by Genesis Consulting – but there are no prizes for guessing who gets the blame for what went wrong.

Genesis believe Ireland has consistently underperformed at the past six Olympics, and ranks lowest on the list with eight comparator nations – New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia. Despite the three medals won in boxing, only one athlete and two swimmers, achieved a personal best, while many more of them were not arriving at the Games in peak form or condition.

So who was to blame? Firstly, the Irish Sports Council: for the failure of their high-performance strategy, set up in 2001, to focus on the small number of sports with medal-winning potential (super-effective sports); and for their failure to establish an effective Irish Institute of Sport.

Secondly, the Olympic sports themselves: for the apparent lack of direction and ambition shown by many of the sports, despite serious levels of Government financial support over the years.

And thirdly, the Irish Sports Council – again: for their failure to form an effective partnership with the OCI, despite this kind of co-operation being established good practice in the comparable nations.

However, in the Sports Council’s own independent review published earlier this month, which the OCI opted out of, there was no significant criticism of the various components of Ireland’s performance – funding, coaching or medical back up. However, it did feel that the OCI needed to demonstrate a performance return from any investment made by the Sports Council.

Anyway, Alistair Gray, managing director of Genesis, and part of the Olympic review process since 2001, didn’t conceal his disappointment that the OCI still weren’t getting along with the Sports Council. “It is still quite staggering that this partnership does not exist,” he said, “either in reality, or spirit. And it cannot be right where stakeholders are excluding themselves from their own review. Also, the Institute of Sport, five or six years on after it was recommended, is barely operational. Nor are the super-effective sports identified.

“The Sports Council did suggest signs of improvement in their report, and we wouldn’t dispute this. But there’s no point doing reviews every four years, unless we get up in the helicopter and ask is the whole thing working? And Ireland has underperformed consistently across the last six Olympics.

“Looking at comparator nations is a pretty crude measure, but it’s not far away. All other nations had higher standards of athletes and better systems. Here it’s the system that is underperforming, as much as the athletes.”

OCI president Pat Hickey accepted the report was quite damning of Ireland’s true Olympic standing, but reckoned the door was wide open for a better relationship with the Sports Council.

“It sounds very depressing, but some good can come of it,” said Hickey. “It’s like we’re standing . . . nude out in the street. Well now we can put clothes on. I hope it shakes everybody up. There are very worrying things in it [the report]; that maybe our athletes across all the sports are not ambitious enough; that they don’t have the inner hunger that they should. The other is the mish-mash of different systems in the country aren’t working.

“But there seems to be some sort of inordinate fear in the Sports Council about the OCI. I don’t know whether it’s down to personalities or not. I get on very well with John Treacy [the Sports Council chief executive], but he seems to think that I’m out to wipe him out. Not at all. His role is nothing to do with me.

“We’ve a very friendly relationship. It’s just that he gets nervous about politics. He thinks that I’m trying to out-manoeuvre him. We don’t want to run Irish Sport. We just want some input. But, for example, we’ve asked for the last four years to be involved in the carding system, that we had a great contribution to make before the money was assessed. We were completely refused.

“Nor were they prepared to share with us the programmes that the national federations had submitted to the Sports Council. The national federations were afraid to give them to us in case it affected their grant aid. There’s a fear there all the time.

“I think what they’re doing to Athletics Ireland is an absolute disgrace. To have the Sports Council interfering with the appointment of key officials, or coaches, in any federation, and to hold back money is grossly unfair.”

Hickey suggested OCI member Susan Ahern, a sports lawyer and former volleyball international, as their candidate for the Sports Council board: “Not me, but someone with no baggage. That would create a buffer.

“If that person is there, it creates a rapport, so if there are problems coming down the line, we can sort them out before they do become an issue.”

The task of improving relations will fall on the desk of the Minister for Sport Martin Cullen, but in the meantime Hickey had some further suggestions of how Ireland’s Olympic chances can improve ahead of London 2012.

“I said in 1988 that the way forward was to concentrate on minority sports. I was laughed off the face of the earth. Track and field will always be the king of the Games, but if you look at the countries that are getting the medals, it’s in minority sports.

“But we can forget about trying to attract teams here in the run-up to London, because we haven’t got the facilities. Knowing my colleagues in Europe, and around the world, if I brought them here, they wouldn’t see any Olympic standard facilities.

“They’d tell me I’m giving them a second-rate place to train in because I’ve had a look at what they’re offering in the UK. They’re offering £50,000 (€56,000) to come to a regional city. And these cities have fantastic facilities. Right now the benefit of London to us will be next to none. Except maybe a few tourists.”