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Sonia O’Sullivan: Ross doesn’t understand athletes’ reliance on funding

Athletes left to fend for themselves may just lose heart, faith and confidence in the OCI

New OCI president Sarah Keane. She can influence positive changes through athlete support and improved results.  Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

I spent much of last weekend immersed in sporting events, and feeling nothing but the better for it. Starting on Saturday from the lovely west Cork village of Glengarriff, it was my fifth year riding in the annual Rebel Tour around the Beara Peninsula, 160km of winding undulating roads, traversing the Healy pass twice, climbing over 2,000m in all as we cycled out into the depths of far west Cork, through the mystical colourful towns of Allihies and Eyeries. 

Sunday was even fuller in a different sense. I was back on my feet in Kilkenny to join the Great Pink Run around the attractive running trails and paths of Kilkenny Castle. There was just enough time for a quick bite before a fast walk along the river Nore to a local pub by the same name that we’d stumbled upon the night before.

The All-Ireland women’s camogie final had just started, and this year I had a sense it was going to be something special, and was determined to infiltrate a little bit of Rebel support amongst the Kilkenny people. 

Having driven from west Cork and seen the banners of support along the road for locals on the Cork team, I could feel the pride and energy exuding from places where these came from.

It’s a very special thing to see this public expression of support as you traverse the country’s roads, how important it is to each town and village that their representatives know how important the result is back at home. 

To be immersed in the build-up, to feel the positive energy exuding from people only helps to believe that anything is possible, and I was never in doubt that Cork would do everything possible to keep within striking distance to the final whistle.

Fighting for glory

This was a display of Irish sports women competing at the highest level in Ireland, the two best camogie teams fighting for glory, one to regain the cup they held for many years, the other defending their title. 

The fitness, skills and determination were evident from both teams. Maybe I am biased – and when cheering for one team you can look more at one side and not see the other – but throughout the game I just felt that Cork were more desperate, like a dog with a bone, refusing to let go until the final whistle, when they could fall to the ground in joy and relief. 

This is all exciting and energising on the home and local side of sport, but if we are to continue to grow and develop internationally then developing Olympic athletes need the confidence they will be supported as we now enter the three-year countdown to Tokyo 2020. 

Minister for Transport Shane Ross met with the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) on Tuesday evening to discuss the continued suspension of Government funds, and its impact t on the OCI’s ability to conduct its work. He may have committed to pay the outstanding funding for 2016, but has made no commitment on this year’s money or, indeed, into 2018. 

The funds, worth some €100,000, had been suspended since the arrest of former OCI president Pat Hickey in Brazil amid allegations of ticket touting during the Rio Olympics. The Minister said the OCI had proved the 2016 money was spent on athlete-related activities, and therefore could be reimbursed.

Legacy issues

However, he defended his position that all outstanding legacy issues must be resolved before the funding resumes, including the situation whereby the OCI had been tied into an agreement with the THG ticketing firm until 2026 despite it being rejected as the official ticket reseller for the 2016 and 2018 Olympic Games. The OCI said the contract was signed by Hickey without the consent or knowledge of the board. 

Without Government funding, the OCI has stressed its preparations for the upcoming Olympic Games will suffer. 

A decision needs to be taken by Ross to directly continue the allocated Olympic funding rather than indirectly stalling athlete development. 

He may be punishing the administration of the organisation publicly, but without acknowledging the negative impact this will have on Irish Olympic athletes’ who depend on support from the OCI in the current Olympic cycle. 

It’s a distraction that needs to be resolved so that the new OCI president, Sarah Keane, can influence positive changes through athlete support and improved results. 

Now is the time to make athlete-focused decisions and apply funding as it is needed in this next Olympic cycle, rather than leave potential athletes out on a limb in the years they need most support.

Minority sports 

I don’t believe Ross understands the reliance many so-called minority sports have on Olympic funding to help young, unknown athletes commit to their sport without worrying about living expenses. 

Prior to 2012, modern pentathlon was a little known sport in Ireland. Natalya Coyle benefitted from Olympic support – she finishing ninth at the London Olympics and sixth in Rio. A minority sport that was allowed to grow, develop and get noticed through Olympic support.

There may well be another young athlete in need of support that could go unnoticed while this political debates drag on. 

Athletes left to fend for themselves may just loose heart, faith and confidence in the OCI if their hands are tied and no funds available.

It’s easy to reward and congratulate people when they deliver results, but you may never get the results if an athlete that is rising through the ranks is not properly supported.