Sonia O’Sullivan: Success in sport doesn’t begin or end with funding

It’s much more satisfying to be rewarded for results than awarded for potential

The Ireland women’s hockey team celebrate with their silver medals following last weekend’s World Cup Final at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London. Photograph: Kate McShane/Getty Images

The Ireland women’s hockey team celebrate with their silver medals following last weekend’s World Cup Final at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London. Photograph: Kate McShane/Getty Images

 

Some things can always be argued from the side of the chicken and the egg – the ultimate Catch-22 scenario – and at times it seems success in sport is no different, especially when it comes to the core issue of funding.

Which comes first: the success, or the funding which helped bring about that success? It’s the one issue doing the rounds at the moment in the aftermath of the surprise success of the Irish women’s hockey team. Getting to the World Cup final was something nobody expected, and yet the team just kept on winning and progressing, mostly on the back on their own self-belief, huge team spirit, and their never-give-up attitude.

Their momentum engaged the whole country, and this positive energy just added more to their belief and the possibility that anything could happen: even going into the final in that way. At times too they made it look so easy.

There’s no doubting there’s been a massive sacrifice and commitment from every member of the team and coaching staff, above and beyond any support or backing they were receiving to up this point.

This is effectively the way funding in sport has always been, and how I always believe is a more accountable way of going about it. Perform and you will be rewarded. Not the other way around.

Back in my early days of competitive running, the first time I was ever made aware of funding was when asked to collect receipts in order to claim back any expenses. It seemed fair enough to me, just a little bit more planning and trust that I would get paid back what was already coming out of my own pocket.

I didn’t think too much about it: my main focus was on training hard and enjoying racing. My only concern was doing everything possible to get results, and I knew if I got those results then I would be rewarded, or at least paid back my expenses. This to me was the natural progression: to grow as an athlete, to continue to improve, and in the worst-case scenario at least break even.

Number one priority

When you’re trying to be the best athlete you can be, you have to be able to place your training and preparation as number one priority, but also weigh up other aspects of your life.

It shouldn’t be a given that because you have potential to be good that you will be supported. The greatest success comes from athletes and teams that “back” themselves, the ones that go out on a limb and take no shortcuts, because they’ve already worked out in their own head what’s required.

If you wait around long enough to be paid before you deliver results, then that time may just pass you by, and by the time you realise that it’s up to you to make the first move you find yourself a few steps behind your competitors.

The big difference now is that athletes expect to be paid above and beyond their expenses to be able to compete, or at least cover the extra cost of living the elite athlete lifestyle.

The basic funding given by sports federations and government should cover these extras outside normal living expenses. After that, if you choose to be an athlete like someone else may choose to study to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant, it still requires investment from each individual. So why, if you choose to be an athlete, should you not have to also invest in that lifestyle?

Some athletes also have the opportunity to go to college, which complements their training lifestyle, whether that’s on a scholarship to the US or the various scholarships and support provided by universities here in Ireland.

To me, what the women’s hockey team have proven is that if there is a will there is always a way. Now that success has been properly rewarded with a promise of extra funding for their Olympic preparation, as a direct result of their recent success, as it should be.

Quantify

It’s never easy to quantify a team support like it is with the direct correlation of individual support and results. If you look at the list of funding to Irish athletes for 2018, only two athletes on the list competing at this week’s European Athletics Championships are likely to match their performance with the funding they are being given.

We also know every good athlete has a good team behind them, especially at a young age. A small token can go a long way to keep people motivated, when they see there are rewards for their achievements, and their work and support is appreciated.

It should be no surprise then that there will be a substantial increase to funding for the Irish women’s hockey team because they have delivered a result that deserves payback. But there still needs to be more accountability from athletes that receive funding: if they don’t deliver results then they should not receive payment up front, but rather deliver results first to earn the payback.

On top of direct funding, each carded athlete these days has access to services at the national sports campus in Abbotstown. So it’s not as if by cutting an athlete from direct funding they’re also being cut from the services on offer.

Sometimes when an athlete is rewarded before they deliver results then the need to deliver a result is a lot less urgent, and the intensity can be lower than that of an athlete who is trying to stand out and get noticed. Again, maybe that’s something we can learn from the success of the women’s hockey team.

Rewarded for results

It’s also much more satisfying to be rewarded for results than awarded for potential, or than living with the expectation to deliver on that potential that may never be realised. Better to be owed than to owe in my mind.

The youth and junior athletes’ success recently at European and world level was primarily self-funded; parents and coaches ensuring the young athletes had everything they needed to get to this level and compete carefree.

As these athletes grow and develop, so do the responsibilities, and this is the age where athletes need to be given some reward for their achievements, and some acknowledgement of the financial and time commitment given by parents and coaches.

There needs to be some light to encourage continued support for these athletes to allow them continue to develop and grow with the supportive team behind them.

It needs to be clear and accountable – every medal or success story should come with some reward, and it must be something that is tangible, a bit more than a pat on the back and a picture in the newspaper.

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