Sporting bodies tell Dáil how they are running on empty

Oireachtas committee hears how quest for success is undermined by funding shortages

It was strange how the goodwill that pervaded Wednesday's Oireachtas hearing into sport in Ireland almost always came back to the ill winds of fiscal constraint: the challenge to win medals at Olympic Games and World Championships is money-driven and the strategies needed to turn the failures of Rio into the success of Tokyo are already undermined by inadequate government subventions

Those subventions were, we were told, whittled away over the years, with two sports, sailing and hockey, returning from Rio in debt, and with sailor Saskia Tidey jumping ship to team GB because of their 2020 war chest. A number of Ulster hockey players have also taken that leap in past years.

That’s a GB budget of €404 million overall, €21 million for hockey alone and €30 million for sailing. It makes a persuasive argument and eclipses Irish funding, which doesn’t do such round-figured, four-year plans.

In the Olympic cycle for Rio there was a direct Irish government investment of €32.2 million into the high-performance units, with an additional €6.5 million going directly to the athletes under the international carding scheme.That brought the total investment for Rio to about €40 million.



Wednesday's sitting with Irish Sports Federation's Sarah Keane and James Galvin along with Sport Ireland's John Treacy, Paul McDermott and Una May invariably wound its way towards the boring truth – that sport, for all the platitudes about health benefits and self-worth and tackling obesity and culture, is chronically underfunded and not, despite what the politicians repeated, important enough to be supported properly.

“Per capita GDP is a very strong indicator of performance,” said McDermott referring to New Zealand and Denmark, two similar-sized countries who again out gunned us in Rio.

The Kiwis won 19 medals at the Olympics, Denmark earned 15 and Ireland came home with a pair of podium places in rowing and sailing.

“Two things,” said McDermott. “They [New Zealand and Denmark] have about 20 years on us [devising programmes] and much greater levels of funding,”

"Many national governing bodies are under-resourced," added Irish Sports Federation chief executive Galvin. "Sport has already taken massive hits. Government funding is integral."

He called for a national sports policy with ring-fenced funding and a restoration to 2008 levels for next year, with a 20 per cent increase by 2020. He quoted figures in the billions spent on preventable diseases, obesity and diabetes and the relatively paltry sums that go to sport, which can prevent and cure those conditions.

“Current funding from Sport Ireland to national governing bodies and local sports partnerships is down 19 per cent since 2007,” said Treacy, who added wearily: “There is a challenge to restore funding.”

That has been a refrain for the last eight years. Senator John O’Mahony pointed out that the OCI had reserves of €1 million or €2 million and asked why with such reserves they needed government funding at all.


He didn't get an answer and may have added that some of it was spent on a Deloitte report into governance which at least four State-funded national governing bodies – archery, ice hockey, wrestling and rowing – are demonstrably ignoring. Deloitte's term limit recommendation is eight years. In the culture of good governance, those sports are supporting candidates already there for 20 years.

That vexed question was succinctly answered by Keane, chief executive of Swim Ireland, a board member of ISF and the only female candidate running for Olympic Council of Ireland president in next month's elections.

Keane is a straight talker and a qualified solicitor. She added that it’s also about money, of course. Small organisations with just one paid member must seek external advice at a cost from expert sources such as, well, Deloitte.

“Term limits,” she explained. “That’s saying you and you can’t be on the board next year . . . It’s like the turkeys voting for Christmas to use a terrible cliché.”

Issue of salaries

The issue of salaries arose in Wednesday's Oireachtas hearing into Irish sport. The Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport chairman Brendan Griffin voiced a question many of us have thought about. He asked Treacy if his funding body would consider reducing grants to organisations where salaries were seen to be excessive. Just for a moment, Treacy hesitated. No names were mentioned in the exchange but it is widely believed that the annual salary of FAI chief executive John Delaney is €360,000.

“That could be looked at, yeah,” said Mr Treacy. He then moved on.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times