Sporting success an aberration given inadequate level of funding


SIDELINE CUT:Leo Varadkar is probably right in declaring that the budget is not an “a la carte menu”. But he is forgetting that it is so long since most Irish people have been out to dinner that they half forget what that even means.

However, Minister Varadkar was one of the very few men of Dáil Éireann who was able to deliver news that, while not exactly good, was not explicitly bad either.

Yes, Government funding for sports is down by €1.3 million but the percentage cut is just 2.9 per cent rather than the anticipated five per cent.

You can be sure the Irish sports groups everywhere, from boxing (which has a core funding of €352,000) to baton twirling (€13,000) were grateful for that small relief.

I don’t think I am alone in frequently forgetting that Minister Varadkar is Our Man In Sport. Enda Kenny’s decision to hand that role to Varadkar, who had built a reputation for waspishly accurate attacks on the declining Fianna Fáil regime, was the most left field selection policy by any Mayo man since the high-flying Willie Joe Padden was sent in to play corner-forward for eight minutes during a league game in the autumn of 1988.

Sport just didn’t seem to be the right place for Leo: he never seemed like a sporty kind of guy and didn’t seem to fit in with the swashbuckling tradition of Irish sports ministers.

I am thinking here, of course, of men like Jim McDaid. The Donegal man had been a fine Collingwood Cup player in his college days and as he progressed in politics clearly enjoyed shooting the breeze about sport.

And more to the point, he looked like a sports minister should, which in those halcyon days (’97-2002) of a thundering economy and rampant optimism demanded a man who would not have looked entirely out of place in a magazine advert for expensive cognac.

Is it a dream or did the minister not sport a yellow polo-neck under blazer look in tandem with the Irish stage of the Tour de France back in 1998? There is only word for that look: debonair. No, in the good old days, the minister for sport was a fellow who could reflect the common man’s enthusiasm and appreciation for games and racing.

Too quickly we forget the barnstorming days of John O’Donoghue, whose enthusiasm for the job of being supporter-in-chief for everything from Munster rugby to Cheltenham literally knew no bounds.

Those, of course, were different days and Minister Varadkar represents an extreme break in tradition. Prior to Enda’s burst of inspiration, there was precious little sign that he was interested in sport at all.

The image consultants didn’t help much – a casual photo shot of Leo in a fetching Leinster scarf as he headed out to the RDS with the masses to watch ‘the boys’ would not have hurt.

But Leo took it in his stride. In fairness, sport is only part of the portfolio anyway. It was never hard to discern where sport ranked in the priorities of our politicians by the way it was always treated as an odd sock and paired with anything – culture or tourism or heritage or, as it is right now, transport.

And it has been kind to Leo. Sport was about the only good news story of the year. Katie Taylor. Leinster. Kilkenny. Rory McIlroy, Donegal.

These have all been terrific stories which have inspired people in a way that the Government has utterly failed to do. So by way of due recognition, Minister Varadkar managed to shave a little bit of the planned reduction in the investment in sport. In fairness to the guy, it is better than nothing.

But it’s not the fraction saved which is laughable: it is the whole.

Directing €45.5 million of the annual funding into sport will do what it has always done – keep the various sports ticking over and no more.

Any success that Ireland has enjoyed in individual sports, from Sonia O’Sullivan to Barry McGuigan to Katie Taylor has been down to a kind of miraculous combination of talent and dedication.

Talk to any Irish sports person – particularly in the lone disciplines – who has achieved at world level about what, why or how they made it and they will always, always return to some coach when they were starting off; some man or woman who put untold and unpaid hours into helping them because they noticed that spark.

Every so often, Ireland will produce a champion athlete or a brilliant Olympian but they bloom through rare natural talent and intense family dedication – witness Katie Taylor – more so than strategic development programmes made possible through adequate funding.

By Christmas this year, €20 billion will have disappeared into bank bond obligations for which nobody would appear to be responsible. Billions more will go the same way next year.

That money would buy one hell of a lot of batons.

Little wonder that Minister Varadkar has been pragmatic about the issue of removing alcohol sponsorship from Irish sport. He knows the money has to come from somewhere and he knows the allocation from Government is nowhere near enough.

There are, of course, graver issues than sport at stake after this year’s budget.

But the diminishing allocation – with a projected reduction to €40 million by 2015 – was a small, depressing little reminder of the fact that after everything, the odds will always be long in Irish sport.

The unspoken assumption is that there will always be someone – a teacher or a parent or those anonymous heroes who keep athletics or swimming clubs functioning out of some daft notion that they are improving the lives of youngsters – who will spot talent and nurture it to the point where an athlete with exceptional talent can apply for state funding.

God knows how many potential Katie Taylors fall by the wayside or just aren’t noticed or never even get their shot.

No, Irish sport and politics mix on red carpet and flashbulb days. Once a year, the government funding is announced in the budget. And then Irish sport might as well be flung like an old gym bag into whatever cupboard in Leinster House is marked “PE and Games Equipment”.

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