How much does Leo Varadkar really value sport?

Budget will present Varadkar with chance to set send out statement about sport's value

The Budget will present Leo Varadkar with the chance to set send out a statement about exactly how much he values sport in what will be his first properly financial act as Taoiseach.

The Budget will present Leo Varadkar with the chance to set send out a statement about exactly how much he values sport in what will be his first properly financial act as Taoiseach.

 

People might be better off, or worse off, but typically, not by much. And that, the insiders tell me, is everything you need to know about Tuesday’s budget.

Unless. We’ve had a lot of sporting mad Taoisigh over the years, all happy to talk the talk, if not always walk the walk. Leo Varadkar has already set himself apart with his willingness to run the run - or indeed swim, bike and run, often in quick succession. His style isn’t bad either, more running with the legs than on them, although sitting a little too far back on the hips.

Varadkar’s medical background also affords him an even better understanding of the health, and in turn wealth, of the nation. And he seems to genuinely care every time the subject comes up.

Tuesday, as in all times of post-austerity, is still all about balancing the books. And Varadkar’s widely touted intention of cutting income tax, especially for the middle earners, will mean raising some income elsewhere, one of his equally touted intentions being to introduce some sort of sugar tax, beginning sometime next year.

This may come across as a nice little political sweetener, although anyone familiar with this subject will know it is a largely cosmetic exercise, at least when it comes to tackling childhood obesity. Adding 10 cent to the price of a can of Coke, or any popular sugary drink for that matter, will make zero impact on that issue.

Fat tax

There is potential for this “fat tax” - to give it the less polite term - to raise some extra revenue. The UK’s new tax policy on sugar-sweetened drinks, also coming in next year, aims to raise around €662 million per annum; still it’s being greeted with mild optimism, with even Public Health England admitting there is no “”robust” evidence to show what existing tax policies (such as in France) have on sugar consumption or indeed health.

The only true potential benefit for the health - and again wealth - of the nation is to divert that sugar tax straight back into sport. And that doesn’t need to be a costly exercise.

This year, the Government delivered just over €20 million to our 58 National Governing Bodies of sport and elite athletes, essentially in line with 2016 figures. The breakdown saw €1.8 million in direct athlete investment, €7.2 million in high performance programme funding, €10.8 million to the 58 National Governing Bodies core funding, and €600,000 in National Governing Bodies Women in Sport Programme.

Peanuts, essentially, especially when set against the total Government spending this year of more than €58 billion. More than half of which, by the way, goes on health and social protection. And according to the latest exchequer returns, the main overspend this year is in health, which is coming in €166 million above the already hefty profile at €10.68 billion.

You do the maths on that.

What is certain is that no Government investment is guaranteed a greater return than sport, even if sometimes that return comes in immeasurable ways. And unlike recent budgets, where by all accounts Enda Kenny left Micheal Noonan to his own devices, Varadkar is keeping a close eye on Paschal Donohue,. Whatever budget is eventually presented on Tuesday, Varadkar “will have his fingerprints all over it” (again according the insiders).

Statement

How much then does Varadkar care for sport? The Government has only around €350 million of ‘new’ money to spend, leaving little scope for surprise “giveaways”, but this does present Varadkar with the chance to set send out a statement about exactly how much he values sport in what will be his first properly financial act as Taoiseach.

Consider too the slice of the money pie that sport gets from the entire Department for Tourism, Transport and Sport. After last year’s budget, Minister Shane Ross declared his overall allocation of €1.8 billion represented a four per cent increase (or €72 million) on the 2016 amount.

On closer inspection, however, those numbers weren’t so pretty, the total allocation for sport funding (including that €20 million to the National Governing Bodies) coming in at €51.91 million, down around 30 per cent from the €73.5 million allocated in 2016.

According to Minister Ross at the time, the main reason for the difference is that 2016 allocation included some €22 million towards the National Indoor Arena at Abbotstown, completed earlier this year. He also claimed another round of the Sports Capital Funding (open to all clubs and sports around the country) essentially keeps the baseline of sports funding where it was.

This is the same Minister, by the way, still withholding 2017 funding from the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), until they clear up some “legacy” issues from the aftermath of the Rio ticketing scandal. This is not a small amount of money, and merits some precaution: the OCI received €1.72 million in Government funding in the four-year cycle up to Rio, and there can be no uncertainty anymore about where exactly that money is going.

It’s still less, however, than the €1.57 million given to Irish Rowing in the same four-year cycle, the association which actually went about winning Olympic medals in Rio, and continues to do so. And still loose change compared to what’s being spent on health and social protection.

All three Irish medal winners at last weekend’s World Rowing Championships - and not forgetting Sanita Puspure in fourth - said the single most important factor in their success was the investment in coaching.

Two years out from the Tokyo Olympics is the perfect time to increase budgeting for coaching across all sports - and on that note just a little gesture by Varadkar on Tuesday could go a very long way.

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