Athletes look to alternative models for funding

Government’s lack of support prompts Irish competitors to seek donations


A lot of people think Jerry Kiernan is mad. Or hard to ignore, but worth the effort, as Con Houlihan liked to say whenever someone drove him mad. That’s not saying there isn’t some method to Kiernan’s madness.

The last thing any sane person would normally do is stand up for their sport, while looking down on another, especially live on national radio. Yet it was hard to ignore Kiernan this week after he branded Gaelic games as being not “particularly skilful”. Although his questioning of the latest bundle of Government funding to the GAA – in this case €600,000 towards the redevelopment of London GAA’s headquarters in Ruislip – was actually a worthy effort.

Not even Kiernan could have expected his argument to gain weight later in the week when reports emerged of the GAA’s plans to sell part of their championship broadcasting rights to Sky Sports. The hysteria created by that decision is already verging on Arthur Miller territory, reminiscent of the gripping John Proctor confession in The Crucible , and those mighty lines “because it is my name, because I cannot have another in my life, because I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”

Anyway, Kiernan has always confessed his discomfort at this perception that Irish athletes are somehow all spectacularly well funded. That, presumably, was his main motivation, not his lingering grudge against the GAA after Pat Spillane was named Kerry sports star of the year, back in 1984, ahead of Kiernan, who had finished ninth in that year’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles.

Worrying times
Because these are worrying times for the funding of sport, not just in athletics. This year, only 11 Irish athletes are receiving direct funding from the Irish Sports Council, under the international carding scheme, totalling €168,000 – or just over half of the €308,000 that’s being given to 14 Irish boxers (that point made purely for comparison purposes: boxers are very, very skilful).

There is also a money pool that helps fund athletes indirectly (for training camps, competitions, etc) although there’s no guarantee every athlete entitled to such funding will ever see it. All GAA intercounty players are entitled to a share of the Government player grant scheme, even if it’s a trifle amount, on top of whatever support they get from club or county (and all of which is no doubt perfectly within their amateur guidelines).

Still there were cries of sympathy when some counties began looking to local businesses to sponsor their intercounty players. How low must they go? Kildare are one such county to successfully put such deals in place to sponsor their footballers, and still, no matter what county they’re from these days, it’s almost impossible to get an interview with any footballer or hurler unless they’re also selling their name to something else in the process.

Funding models
In the meantime an increasing number of Irish athletes have been looking at alternative funding models, including the good old donation. Pledge Sports was set up with that in mind, and now have a range of athletes on their on-line funding platform, including John Coghlan, son of Eamonn, who has already done quite well in attracting donations towards his quest to qualify for the 1,500 metres at the European Championships in August.

Both the Irish men’s and women’s hockey teams are also running a Pledge Sports campaign to help their goal of qualifying for the Rio Olympics in 2016, as is rower Jenny Egan, while tennis player James Cluskey is seeking donations to aid his effort to qualify for Wimbledon.

Likewise with current Irish indoor 800m champion Niall Tuohy, who is seeking donations through the nTrai on-line funding platform, based out of Limerick. Tuohy has never received any Government funding for the simple reason he’s been suffering from literally crippling injuries for four of the past five years, including a rare genetic form of tarsal tunnel syndrome, which severely damaged the nerves on his feet to the point that he couldn’t stand up for longer than five minutes. In some cases, amputation is the only end solution, although Tuohy was fortunate enough that his parents came up with the €50,000 to facilitate two surgeries, six weeks apart, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Popular winners
That was back in the summer of 2009, although Tuohy – once dubbed one of Ireland’s most promising juniors, earning himself a scholarship to Providence College – wasn’t out of the woods just yet. Two years ago he was crippled again with a combination of a hip and hernia injury, and poured more of his own time and money into getting himself right. No wonder Tuohy was one of the most popular winners of an Irish indoor title in Athlone last month, and why his funding campaign is so worthy of a donation (see

All this comes against the backdrop of last week’s news that UK Sport was completely pulling the plug on funding for several team sports, including basketball, synchronised swimming and water polo, while focusing instead on sports more likely to win medals on the Olympic stage, such as cycling, rowing, and triathlon.

That left a lot of people standing up for their sport, while looking down on another, and they can’t all be mad, can they?

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