New cross country track should not disguise failings in level of sports funding

Ian O’Riordan: Failure to increase funding and development of Olympic sports doesn’t auger well

Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Patrick O’Donovan with Irish cross country runner Ciara Mageean at the opening of the Sport Ireland National Cross Country Track. Photograph: Sportsfile

Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Patrick O’Donovan with Irish cross country runner Ciara Mageean at the opening of the Sport Ireland National Cross Country Track. Photograph: Sportsfile

 

My morning run takes me down Boranaraltry Lane and through the valley and across the side of Glencullen Mountain. From there it drops around Raven’s Rock and then climbs again up the Devil’s Elbow and finishes back on Barrack Road, all the while never more than 10 miles from O’Connell Street.

It takes about an hour and I’ve still no idea how far it is but it must be one of the most undulating and beautifully isolated loops outside of the Great Rift Valley. If you pass any foxes or hares or some Sika deer it’s been a busy run.

We often complain about sporting facilities in this country. Sometimes for good reason, yet sometimes forgetting as well that some of the finest facilities are right on our doorstep. One of the reasons distance running remains so popular through good times and bad times is the simple realisation it doesn’t require anything more than a soft pair of heels and a strong heart.

Which is also why some people may be surprised to hear our latest sporting facility – officially opened on Wednesday – is a new and permanent National Cross Country Course. It runs around part of the perimeter of the National Sports Campus at Abbotstown, land that was essentially idle anyway and certainly central and easily accessible for competitors and spectators.

Still, part of the tradition of cross country running is that it avoids any permanent or purpose-built terrain and allows nature to define its course instead. Our new National Cross Country Course, a 1.5k loop with two smaller add-ons (500m and 700m) is also near pancake flat (which I know my dad won’t be very pleased to hear), and even if it does cut up, it can never be as tough as Ballyhaise or indeed Ballinlough (as all true cross country runners will remember).

Waste of money And for a country so littered with fields and parks and forest paths and other open spaces it might also seem like a waste of money, even if that only involved design and landscaping costs. Of course the times they are a changing, and the new generation aren’t so keen about running through the middle of nowhere and changing in old farm buildings. If a national cross country course draws more youngsters into the sport and gives them that first gentle hit of the distance running high then that can only be a good thing, a moderate investment for a strong return.

It’s not the first of its kind, with Canberra in Australia home to the Rob de Castella Cross Country Course (could ours not be similarly dedicated?): it will get its first proper test run with Sunday’s Athletics Ireland Autumn Open event, featuring our two-time European Cross Country champion Fionnuala McCormack.

Not that our new national cross country course should disguise or indeed dress up the fact our level of sporting investment still falls short of where it needs to be, or indeed was. If anything the timing of Wednesday’s official opening may well have been designed to deliberately disguise some of the disappointing figures in the allocation to sport in the budget, 24 hours earlier.

The Department for Tourism, Transport and Sport, naturally, dressed up the figures in a positive way, Minister Shane Ross declaring his overall allocation of €1.8 billion to represent a four per cent increase (or €72 million) on the 2016 amount. On closer inspection, however, the numbers aren’t so pretty, the actual allocation for sport of €51.91 million down around 30 per cent from the €73.5 million allocated in 2016.

According to Minister Ross, the main reason for the difference is that 2016 allocation included some €22 million towards the National Indoor Arena, also at Abbotstown, now practically complete and due for an official opening in early 2017. He also claims another round of the Sports Capital Funding (open to all clubs and sports around the country) will essentially keep the baseline of sports funding where it was. Investment That mightn’t sound so bad, at least in the short run, but if this summer’s Rio Olympics were anything to go by, then the level of investment at the elite of sport needs to be beefed up considerably, not left where it is. Like the investment in preparation and training, that’s also most needed in the two or three years out from the Games, certainly not in the Olympic year itself.

In the four-year Olympic cycle between London 2012 and Rio 2016, there was an investment of €32.2 million into the high-performance units of our Olympic sports, with an additional €6.5 million going directly to the athletes under the international carding scheme, for a total of about €40 million. In the four years before London, the total was €30 million.

The two Olympic medals won in Rio – silver for Annalaise Murphy in sailing, and silver for lightweight rowers Paul and Gary O’Donovan – effectively represents the return on that investment, and even accounting for the shockingly unfair defeat for leading boxing medal hope Michael Conlon, it’s a less impressive return on the €30 million invested before London, where Ireland came away with six medals.

Part of the reason is that winning Olympic medals is getting increasingly harder, or rather more expensive, given the investment of other nations. Nowhere is that more evident than with neighbours Britain, who upped their lottery funding by 27 per cent before Rio to £346 million (or €384 million in post-Brexit money). They ended up second on the medal table, winning 27 gold, increasing their overall medal count of 67 for a fifth successive Olympics. British gymnastics, having won four medals in London, got a 36 per cent increase in funding, and won seven medals in Rio, including a first ever gold for Max Whitlock.

Perhaps Minister Ross has other reasons for stymieing any increase in the immediate funding and development of Olympic sports, but even with some of the finest sporting facilities right on our doorstep, that doesn’t auger well for the long run.

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