Sweeney thrown into eye of storm

 

NICK SWEENEY, the national discus record holder, is at the centre of an unusual dispute between Bernard Allen, the Minister for Sport, and officials of the Olympic Council of Ireland.

Sweeney underwent an operation in a London hospital last month to repair the knee injury which jettisoned his Olympic challenge in Atlanta. As a member of the OCI's panel of elite athletes he presented the bill, thought to be less than £1,500, for payment by the council.

Pat Hickey, the OCI president, claimed that they had insufficient funds to meet it and, in turn, referred the matter to Allen.

According to Hickey, four letters have been dispatched to the Minister but, as yet, the bill has not been paid.

"It is an absurd situation which has put the athlete in an embarrassing situation," said Hickey.

"International athletes in training for the Olympic Games ought not be subjected to this kind of treatment and it's up to the Minister and his officials to put it right.

"With the co operation and goodwill of specialists at the Blackrock and Mater clinics, we have been able to provide a top class medical back up service for our athletes at relatively little cost. Now that valuable arrangement is, it seems, about to be put at risk."

Sweeney has since returned to the United States and with surgery revealing that the damage was not as extensive as first suspected, he is already back in training, preparing for the world track and field championships in Athens this August.

He now finds himself caught up, unwittingly, in what threatens to be a long and acrimonious battle involving the Minister and his officials, on the one hand, and the OCI administration, on the other.

The National Plan for Sport, commissioned by the Minister last year, is due to be published within the next fortnight and is thought to contain several recommendations with adverse implications for the OCI.

In particular, it will recommend that the council's function as the conduit for State funding of sport be discontinued. The plan advises that this responsibility should bed passed to a committee composed of officials from the Department of Education and inclines of the Irish Sports Council.

"There is now little doubt that this function is about to be taken away from us - and not for the betterment of Irish sport," said Hickey. "Anticipating the contents of the National Plan, we have asked all 27 of the National Federations affiliated to our council how they wish to be funded.

"Twenty one of those federations have indicated that they would like the present system to be retained on the basis that the proposed changes will only mean more bureaucracy.

Hickey claims that several athletes have already contacted him expressing concern over the National Plan and the funding changes proposed for the Olympic Games at Sydney in 2000.

"Most athletes are working on a four year plan which should have started on January 1st," he said. "They need to know if they're going to be funded and to what extent. Now it looks as if they are not going to be put in the picture until August at the earliest.

"The other six federations have indicated that they wish to study the contents of the National Plan before deciding on their response, but I've no doubt that they, too, will be disillusioned by some of its recommendations."

Carl Lewis is to retire this summer. "I intend to make my final race at Houston in June," said Lewis (35) yesterday. "This will be my last season."

"Physically, I could continue for another three to four years, but the mental pressure is harder.

"I don't know what it's going to feel like not being on the track any more, but I'm not going to sever my connection with the sport or with the Olympics," added Lewis, who is in Sydney for today's grand prix meeting.

Lewis, one of the greatest athletics ever, has made every United States' Olympic team since 1980. "I have had to adjust to people coming to see Carl the Legend over the years, but everyone realises you're not going to win every race," he said.

In addition to his nine Olympic titles, Lewis has won eight World [Championship gold medals, set seven world records and recorded 65 straight victories in the long jump between 1981 and 1991.