‘The last time we got a medal in track was 2000, with Sonia. There’s a reason for that’

Derval O’Rourke says we should be saluting our athletes for qualifying for the Olympics

Derval O’Rourke:  “ I think we have to keep our expectations in check because we’re not a country that really prepares our athletes to go well at the Olympics.” Photograph:  Gerard McCarthy

Derval O’Rourke: “ I think we have to keep our expectations in check because we’re not a country that really prepares our athletes to go well at the Olympics.” Photograph: Gerard McCarthy

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Derval O’Rourke is asked what expectations the Irish public should have for our track athletes at this summer’s Olympic Games and she comes up with a quirky enough analogy to explain why they should never be set too high.

“Track at the Olympics is like you’re on a motorway and everybody’s got amazing cars, and sometimes I think with our athletes we kind of put them on skateboards,” she says. “And you’re going, ‘best of luck racing those cars!’.”

We should, she argues, just be saluting our athletes for even qualifying for the Games, rather than demanding medals, their funding, she says, is so inadequate.

That issue reared its head again in light of the announcement earlier this week by Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers that female Gaelic Games players will receive the same level of State funding as their male counterparts, the total pot due to rise to €5.3m. While that decision was widely welcomed, it led to a reopening of the debate about why Gaelic Games receives such a large chunk of the funding pie.

O’Rourke, though, is reluctant to make it a ‘them against us’ argument.

“I hate when they pitch the GAA against other sports”, she says.

“When I was competing as a professional track athlete, I’d say my understanding of the importance of the GAA at community and participation level wasn’t as good as it is now, so I would have argued more for the other sports.

“But I have small kids now and when I see my daughter playing camogie I see what a difference that makes community-wise, so I’m under no illusions about how important the GAA is.

“I was talking about it to my husband [Peter O’Leary]. He went to two Olympics in what is a very niche sport in this country, sailing, and he said to me that you can’t argue with what happens up on that pitch on a Saturday, when those kids are playing camogie. And you can’t – but then the flip-side of it is if you put the same level of support in to other sports, would you have the same participation levels?”

“The question is, what is the end game? What is the big picture? Are you putting that money in because, strategy-wise, it’s about participation, or is it about elite sport? If it’s about elite sport then there’s a big discussion to be had; if it’s about participation you can’t argue with what the GAA do because they do an incredible amount for Irish people.”

“And the Gaelic Players Association is an organisation that does an incredible job advocating for its members, and you’d have to admire that. But if I was the other sports I’d be going ‘okay, how do we advocate for more money for our sports, how do we support our athletes, is it okay that we’re sending our athletes to the Olympics with minimal funding, minimal support?”

“If our athletes were on the dole, would they be better off? Are we happy with that as a nation? I tried to go to the Olympics in 2000 and didn’t make the team. At that time the international funding was at €12,000 – now we are in 2021 and I believe it is still €12,000 for athletes below medal-winning or world champion level.

Losing people

“I don’t know about any of ye, but could you manage your life for a year on €12,000? And perform at the absolute highest level in your job? Probably not. So why are we expecting elite level athletes to do it?

“We are losing people all the time because it is so difficult to make it work. And the fact that it has stayed the same since 2000 . . . imagine if you worked somewhere and there was no increase in your wages from when you started out, from school, to now? It would be crazy stuff. It would never happen.”

“When I came back from the Athens Olympics I got a telesales job part-time, I was trying to finish a Masters and trying to train full-time. That’s the reality.

“I would say the biggest stress through my track career was funding – negotiating it, trying to justify why I should be funded, yet that’s really hard to say because you’re so worried you’re going to sound ungrateful – and I was never, ever ungrateful for a penny I got.”

“These athletes have made a lot of life choices which mean their lives are financially a lot leaner and when they comes out in their late 20s, early 30s, they are a step further back than their peers in their careers. Yes, the Olympics is the dream, but there is a massive financial consequence to that.”

Back to those expectations then. She recalls coming back from the 2004 Olympics in Athens where she failed to make it past the heats.

“I ran dreadfully,” she says, “but I had been in hospital three weeks before it, I was very unwell. I remember people in a pub asking me was I finished with the running now because I was so useless at it. So sometimes people’s understanding of actually what a high level the Olympic Games is might not be exactly where we’d like it to be. I think acknowledging that it’s impressive just to qualify is important.”

O’Rourke is due to be on punditry duty with RTÉ for the Tokyo Olympics but, no more than the athletes themselves, remains uncertain that they will actually go ahead. But Pfizer’s offer to provide vaccines to athletes and support staff preparing to compete in Tokyo will, she hopes, make it more likely.

“I think it’s really important that that can be done separate to the Government’s vaccine roll-out because it would have been a very uncomfortable scenario for the athletes to be in. Sending all those athletes unvaccinated would have been really unfair on them, but at the same time I would never have wanted them to get vaccinated ahead of people who were more vulnerable.”

Very tough

“But for these athletes, I really hope it [the Olympics] will happen. If it doesn’t, it will be a whole generation of people who may never go to an Olympic Games, and that would be very, very tough on them. Come July, I just hope I will be sitting in a studio in RTÉ talking about their hopes for the championship.”

“It hasn’t been easy for them in the last year, I hope they’ll be as ready as they can be, but yeah, I think we have to keep our expectations in check because we’re not a country that really prepares our athletes to go well at the Olympics.”

“The last time we got a medal in track was 2000, with Sonia. There’s a reason for that. The world of track and field has incredible depth, some of the most competitive sports in the world – so expectations of medals, I would be trying to reduce those.”

* Derval O’Rourke was speaking in her capacity as ambassador for the Student Enterprise Programme ahead of its national finals on May 14.

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