Sports cuts make for grim reading in quest for success
Core funding for Irish sport is almost half the €81.13 million spent in New Zealand
Some of the success stories: Men’s 50km walk gold medallist at the World Championships Robert Heffernan on his return to Dublin in August; Ireland’s boxing medalists at the London Olympics John Joe Nevin, Katie Taylor, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and the women’s rugby Six Nations Championship team celebrate their Grand Slam victory in Milan. Photographs: Donall Farmer and Dan Sheridan/Inpho
No one ever has or ever will be able to put an accurate price on the cost of success in sport, which is good thing, because it spares countries an explicit reason, or indeed excuse, for either the winning or losing of trophies and medals on the international stage.
What is certain is that the latest budgetary cut in core funding for Irish sport – down €3.1 million, to €40 million, from a peak of €57.3 million in 2008 – won’t strengthen our chances: no wonder the Federation of Irish Sport, which represents the 70 national governing bodies and 30 local sports partnerships that fall under the wing of the Irish Sports Council, have described this latest cut as “grim”.
No two countries will ever spend equal amounts in the quest for sporting success, either, although comparative figures – provided by the Federation of Irish Sport – do make for timely reading. Ireland is typically compared with closest neighbours, the UK, and also Australia, if only because it’s often equated as an equally sporting-mad nation, although in sporting and population terms, New Zealand and Finland provide the more accurate measure.
On that basis, core funding for Irish sport is almost exactly half the €81.13 million spent in New Zealand, and less than half the €100m spent in Finland. When population size is factored in, the €8.73 that Irish sport spends on each citizen is also less than both the UK (€10.73) and Australia €9.71.
“A direct comparison is difficult given different funding structures, but these figures would certainly provide a reasonable comparison,” explained Sarah O’Connor, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sport. “We’re certainly down around the lower end of the scale, but on another point, Finland, going back to the late 1960s, has made physical activity and sport a key part of their government policy. In the UK, as well, the departments of health also have streams of funding for sport, while we don’t have that. We just haven’t adapted sport into any sort of strategic policy.
“It’s worth noting too that in relation to the UK, the model is that participation and grassroots sport is funded in each of the four countries (Sport England, Sport Wales, Sport Scotland and Sport Northern Ireland), with high performance sport across the UK funded through UK sport. So the real frustration at our end is that the importance of investing in sport does not seem to resonate with the Government at all. An investment of sport is not just for sport’s sake but for all the knock-on benefits it delivers to a country and to a society.”
Indeed Irish sporting success is nearly always measured in trophies and medals: the likes of Katie Taylor and Rob Heffernan effectively have their support capped at the €40,000 “podium grant”, the most any athlete can receive under the Irish Sports Council’s carding scheme, and while this is unlikely to change, what most sports appear to fear is the inability to sustain development and coaching programmes.
“Elite funding has been somewhat protected to date,” says O’Connor, “but I don’t know for how much longer. If they lose eight per cent of that grant aid, in line with the eight per cent cut in overall funding, it could mean quite a chunk of their funding.
“Funding for sport in the UK, for example, is also on a four-year cycle, and we’ve been calling for multi-annual funding here, too, instead of year-to-year basis. You begin to build for the 2016 Olympics in Rio now, not in 2015, and definitely not 2016. And not just Rio, but Tokyo, 2020. Sport has to support athletes that are already competing on the world stage, so if you’re making any hard decisions, they would remain the priority, while the junior or development athletes are going to suffer.
“So we might get the people who are on the way to Rio as far as Rio, but there might not be anyone left in the system when it comes to getting them to Tokyo. It’s not like you turn the tap on and off. It’s a development pathway.”
There’s evidence that suggests if you’re not swimming a minimum of 30,000km a year as nine or 10-year-old then you’re never be an Olympic swimmer.
“It’s not just Olympic cycles either. The same in soccer World Cup or European Championships , where underage development is just as important, and the same in rugby. We’ve got used to a level of success now. No one wants to get back to the days when we were getting slaughtered on the world stage.”
As part of the sporting budget for 2014, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Leo Varadkar, also announced a new round of Sports Capital Funding for 2014, although without disclosing the actual sum; there is also an undisclosed sum, described by a department official as “several million”, to complete the National Indoor Arena at the Sports Campus at Abbotstown.
Sports Capital Funding invites sporting clubs and associations to apply for new infrastructure projects, although the clubs and associations are not actually consulted in the decision progress, despite requests to be; it’s possibly no coincidence either that 2014 also sees the next round of local elections. As O’Connor also suggests, “it’s no good investing in facilities if you don’t have the programmes to help deliver on them, especially to maximise the return on that investment.
“The Minister has also said we’re back to 2006 levels, and a lot of other departments or areas of the economy would be happy with that. But in 2006, there was no Institute of Sport. There were less than 10 Local Sports Partnerships, not 30. And there wouldn’t have been as many carded athletes back then, either, given the way of performances on the international stage have generally improved over the last six or seven years.”
Athletics Ireland also released figures earlier this week which indicated that, thanks to an increased embrace of mass participation events, they have been able to become more self-sufficient, generating around two-thirds of their own funding needs. While recognising that achievement, the Federation of Irish Sport is also aware that not every sporting governing body has the capacity to do that.
“The elite end of sport will always need some Government funding. That’s why when the Olympics come round, every country talks about their spend per gold medal. What Athletics Ireland is doing is probably out of reach of other sports, but the reality is, all organisations need some fund-raising expertise, to become further self-sufficient over time.
“Our Sports Council only came into existence in 1997, and put on a statutory level in 1999. Australia has had a Sports Council since 1982, and the UK since 1974. So our system is still relatively new. And developing.
“So we’re only beginning to see the high performance results of that investment, and if you start to turn that off, it’s not going to be easy to turn it on again.”