Rio 2016: Money talks in world’s greatest amateur event

Ireland is spending a total of €40m on athletes at the Olympics, but is it worth it?

It used to be that Olympic funding was a lottery and not just when it came to sourcing the money. Now it's all about finding that winning combination and making sure the numbers come up and you hit the jackpot.

In Rio, over the next two weeks, this means winning medals. More than any other sporting event, it seems, the Olympics know the price of everything and the value of nothing (or should that be the other way around?). At the very least it gives the impression that nothing comes cheap.

“So what are your medal chances?” is the near standard Olympic greeting, and the first few days in Rio have been no exception.

Our near-standard reply – “our boxers” – has been slightly muted in the 24 hours since the announcement that Michael O’Reilly had failed a doping test, with his medal prospects in the middleweight division likely to be over before they begin.


Just how much gloss that takes off the rest of the Irish boxing medal prospects in Rio remains to be seen, but it certainly has not helped the overall mood.

Still, in many ways, the lighting of the Olympic flame inside the Maracana Stadium last night was a signal not so much for the Games and the hunt for medals to begin but also the beginning of the return on all that Olympic investment of each participating nation.

Primary goal

In the beginning, there were 14 nations and 245 athletes, all of them male. There were nine sports, 43 medals to be won, and Baron de Coubertin was already worried that money was corrupting the whole thing.

Here in Rio, we have 206 nations with some 10,500 athletes taking part in 42 sports, including the new additions of rugby sevens and golf. There are only 306 gold medals to play for (161 for men, 136 for women and nine for mixed-gender sports), all of which suggests that winning an Olympic gold – or indeed a medal of any colour – is more difficult now than it has ever been, and yet it remains the primary goal of all 206 nations.

So if from this morning, our first and last target in Rio over these next two weeks is to get someone on the podium, watch the Tricolour being run up the flagpole and hear the drowned-out anthem in whatever venue it happens to be, then at least we’re not alone.

For those taking part this must get a little tiresome or even discouraging. Take the majority of the 77 Irish competitors in Rio and show them a place in their finals or a placing at all and they will come home singing. Still, in a sporting event where they do not give out a single cent in prize money, some people will always count success on the medal table.

So what is the price of that success? Every nation likes to brand their Olympic preparations as the “best ever”, and Ireland can certainly lay claim to that (O’Reilly’s positive test notwithstanding). In the four-year Olympic cycle since London 2012, there has been a direct government (ie taxpayer) investment of €32.2 million into the high-performance units of our Olympic sports (see panel), with an additional €6.5 million going directly to the athletes under the international carding scheme.

That brings our total investment for Rio to about €40 million when the commercial and other sponsorship support is also factored in. For London, that figure was just under €30 million, so at least from a financial point of view, there is no denying this is the “best ever” prepared Irish team.

Successful return

The Irish boxing team, for example, have received €3.49 million in direct high-performance funding since London, well above the €2.8 million it received in the four-year cycle before London. For the first time boxing receives more funding than any other of our Olympic sports, surpassing athletics, our traditional leader.

Still athletics is also up from €3 million in the four years before London to €3.29 million before Rio and likewise sailing, which is up from €2 million to €2.54 million. Indeed all other Olympic sports have received some sort of increase in funding since 2012 (and that is not including the individual carding grants).

So what counts as a successful return on all that investment?

In qualifying 77 athletes across 13 sports, Ireland has already achieved its largest delegation since London 1948, even if the qualification of the men’s hockey team skews that figure slightly. The addition of golf has afforded us four extra qualifiers (Pádraig Harrington, Seamus Power, Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadow) which we might not have normally had, but otherwise those qualifiers have come from effectively the same sports as London.

London – eventually – proved our most successful Olympics ever: the gold medal won by Katie Taylor, along with the silver medal won by John Joe Nevin plus the bronze medals won by fellow boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and then another bronze in the individual show jumping for Cian O'Connor, originally equalled our best-ever haul of five medals from Melbourne 56 years earlier.

Then, earlier this year, Rob Heffernan was retrospectively awarded the bronze medal in the 50km walk, having originally finished fourth, after the Russian gold medal winner was disqualified for a doping offence. That represented another shift in the measure of success in that the final medal tally doesn't end with the extinguishing of the Olympic flame, and Rio may eventually present further evidence of that.

Medal hope

Heffernan (38) represents our sole medal hope in athletics in Rio, again in the 50km walk. Indeed it is unlikely there will be a single Irish finalist on the track, and more than half the team of 17 athletes (six marathon runners, and three race walkers) won’t even be competing inside the Olympic Stadium. Kevin Ankrom, high-performance director with Athletics Ireland, invested heavily in getting a men’s 4x400m relay team to Rio, but ultimately they fell just short. Questions need to be asked about whether or not that represented a successful return on the €3.29 million investment.

Boxing – even with eight qualifiers – arguably represents a more successful return, although again O’Reilly’s positive doping test has cast a shadow over that, even before any medals are lost or won.

Still, boxing is the perfect example of how “target funding” can present the best return of all. After Athens in 2004, boxing was targeted as the one sport in need of some urgent running repairs; before Beijing, only two Irish boxers had made it to the previous two Olympics and won a single fight between them.

For a country famous for punching above its weight, it’s also fitting that boxing once again offers our best medal hopes in Rio. It also still seems to surprise some people that boxing has always been Ireland’s most successful Olympic sport, winning 16 medals, over half our total of 29, from the 20 Games we have so far competed in.

Swim Ireland originally targeted four qualifiers for Rio but ended up with three in Fiona Doyle, Nicholas Quinn and Shane Ryan (plus one diver, Oliver Dingley). That makes their four-year investment of €2.14 million appear a little short on return, and it's already been indicated that Peter Bank, their high-performance director, won't be continuing beyond Rio.

There are quietly modest hopes of a medal in rowing (which received €1.57 million in funding) and sailing (which received €2.54 million) and possibly one of the equestrian events (which received €2.11 million).

The general expectation is that if Ireland can come away from Rio with four medals, we will have done very well. That, in very rough terms, would mean an investment of about €10 million for each medal.

That might sound expensive, although for purely comparison purposes, consider the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. There, in their quest to win as much as possible, China’s investment ran into the billions. And it worked: in the end they topped the medal table for the first time in their Olympic history, winning exactly 100 medals, 51 of them lacquered in gold.

It was calculated afterwards that each of those 100 medals had cost China an investment of about €40 million.

In 2012, following the success of the London Olympics, UK Sport announced an increase in funding from £312 million to £347 million, guaranteed by the government for the next four years. Team GB are targeting at least 66 medals in Rio, one more than in London.

High-performance centre

Still, London four years ago also demonstrated that no matter how much other countries invest, there will never be enough medals to go round: of the 206 nations, only 85 won medals (actually one fewer than Beijing 2008).

It’s not all about the immediate return, however. In the four years since London, there has also been a €3.98 million investment in the high-performance centre at the Irish Institute of Sport in Abbotstown, with another €721,000 in equipment.

That facility, long bemoaned, is now being used by about 160 elite athletes from 18 different sports, along with 46 high-performance coaches.

There is further evidence of a return on all that investment: in 2012, Ireland won 49 medals in various major championship events across all sports, including the Olympics; last year, the number of overall medals won was 79.

Only now will Rio provide the ultimate test of that investment– and whether or not we are left counting the cost of success or of failure.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics