Truth lying on both sides of athletics divide


ATHLETICS:THE STEREO in my old Alfa Romeo Spider only plays cassette tapes, which just means I get to listen to more of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. If there is a more entertaining show on the airwaves these days then I’ve yet to hear it.

I can still recall the nervous excitement three years ago when Dylan announced his first foray into the world of the disc jockey. Here was a man notoriously withdrawn from any media exposure, now prepared to sit behind a microphone every week for an hour straight-talking about God knows what.

Three seasons and almost 100 shows later, Theme Time Radio Hour has become required listening, at least for anyone who claims to love music. Dylan has been a revelation, not only because of his extraordinary musical interest and knowledge, but also his sense of humour. The show is never disappointing and often hilarious.

Although the product of XM Satellite Radio, Theme Time Radio Hour is now broadcast around the world, including on BBC Radio 2, and our own Phantom FM. Every Wednesday, Dylan picks a theme, then bases his song selections around it. These themes are amazingly varied, from “Birds” to “Dreams” and from “Happiness” to “Madness” – each show like finding a lost book of ancient wisdom.

By the Thursday, Theme Time Radio Hour is available for download on several Dylan-inspired websites. That’s what I was doing, dubbing a copy on to cassette tape to play in my car, when I got a call from a colleague at RTÉ to say we should be careful about jumping to conclusions about this latest rift that is tearing through Irish athletics.

I’ve got into trouble before for identifying this particular colleague, as close as we may be, so this time I’ll respect his anonymity.

“We just can’t be seen to be taking sides,” he said. “Because do you know what? There are definitely two sides to this story.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve just decided I’m going to stay well away from this hideous story. I’ve said my part. If they want to go on making trouble for themselves then it’s not my fault.”

I told him I’d a Bob Dylan radio show to listen to, and I’d let that inspire me to write something, anything, other than this crisis in Irish athletics – even if it meant writing about the meaning of life.

By cosmic correlation, the theme Dylan came up with this week was “Truth and Lies”. I kid you not. Sometimes coincidence is much more coincidental than we suppose.

Because, right now, this crisis in Irish athletics has come down to truth and lies; and who, or what, you want to believe. It is, as Dylan said in opening his show, about veracity and prevarication, and the distance between the two.

What is certain is it is now four months since Athletics Ireland had the cover blown on their organisational problems. Mary Coghlan, the CEO appointed in April of last year, had an ugly run-in with Patsy McGonagle, chair of High Performance – and that’s still headed for the High Court.

Yet that’s only a sideshow to the deeper and more crucial issue; the relationship between Athletics Ireland and the Irish Sports Council. Whether Athletics Ireland likes it or not, the Sports Council get to write the Government cheques earmarked for the funding of sport, and there’s no sign of their cheque leaving the book anytime soon.

So whereas last year Athletics Ireland received core funding of €1.3 million, and another €681,000 to fund their high-performance plan, this year they’ve got nothing – at least nothing beyond the trickle of funding to ensure wages are paid and the whole game doesn’t collapse.

Why exactly this is the case is where truth and lies become the theme. Ossie Kilkenny, chairman of the Sports Council, launched an unforgiving broadside against Athletics Ireland on Wednesday, at the announcement of the grants for high performance plans for 2009.

He claimed Athletics Ireland have no performance plan. He criticised the legal action taking place internally. He dismissed the interview process that back in October identified the candidate for the director of Athletics position – and which remains vacant. And ultimately he questioned the entire structure of the association.

I know that because I was there and have every word he said on the record.

“We’re about governance, process, responsibility, and accountability,” he said. “If we saw that here we’d be 100 per cent behind it.”

Kilkenny is an astute and highly competent man. He also added he was first and foremost an athletics man, with the best interest of athletics at heart.

Following all that I spoke with Coghlan, at some length. She didn’t want to be quoted directly but told me on the record she had delivered a five-year high performance plan to the Sports Council back in September. She claimed the legal action taking place internally was exactly that, and would be sorted, simply, away from the key issue.

She said she was astonished the Sports Council had questioned the integrity of the interview process which had identified the candidate for director of athletics. She put me in contact with the man who independently oversaw that process and he said likewise.

And ultimately she questioned the Sports Council’s right to get involved in the day-to-day running of Irish athletics. Would they do likewise with the FAI? Or the GAA? They were, she said, driving a negative agenda and putting the entire association at risk.

Coghlan is an astute and highly competent woman. She also added she was first and foremost an athletics woman, with the best interest of athletics at heart.

Assuming neither Kilkenny nor Coghlan is lying, then only one of them can be telling the truth. Kilkenny was adamant the Sports Council had to get involved, because “it’s very difficult for us to put money at risk when we’re not comfortable with the organisation’s structure”.

Coghlan was adamant the Sports Council should stay out of it, but was open to some sort of mediation process, if that was the only way forward for the sport.

This is an issue that has ramifications for all other sports in Ireland: if the Sports Council isn’t happy about the way the sport is running their show, should they be allowed interfere? Is it their way, or no way? In the end, it was hard to listen to both sides of this story, hear them talk about the best interest of athletics at heart, when it sounded as if it was actually their best interest at heart. That’s why I was determined to let this story go – until Bob Dylan came on the air.

“The lie,” Dylan said, quoting Mark Twain, “can travel halfway round the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Then he played songs about gospel truths and dirty lies; about big fat lies and little white lies; about half truths and whole truths and nothing but the truth.

“And in the end,” he said, “you discover that the truth will always set you free.”

That’s the only side I’m willing to take here.

“ ‘The lie,’ Dylan said, quoting Mark Twain, ‘can travel halfway round the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes’. . . . ‘And in the end,’ he said, ‘you discover that the truth will always set you free’