At last weekend’s illuminating HPX High Performance Conference in Abbotstown, Finbarr Kirwan, the Corkman now working as a high performance director with the United States Olympics Committee, gave an intriguing insight as to how the six sports he oversees won 73 medals in Rio.
America’s goal for every Olympic Games is unapologetic in its bluntness — to top the medals table and to top the gold medals table. If your sport is unlikely to deliver, then the USOC will be slow to deliver it any funding; in recent times badminton, table tennis and handball have received minimal investment.
Yet as Darwinian as that may sound, Kirwan explained how the USOC’s role is a lot more humane than that. Performance may be central to everything but central to performance is the athlete. “The focus is on the athlete and nothing else,” he’d say. Their health and emotional well-being is paramount. Everything is done to assist them and their coaches and their national governing bodies.
“We know our role. The USOC let the NGBS do the work and be successful. We’re standing at the shoulder of the athletes and coaches, not out in front.”
As we know in Ireland it’s been somewhat different when it’s come to the OCI’s
relationship with governing bodies and athletes.
In his defence Pat Hickey could argue that when he bizarrely popped up on our television screens and in the kitchen of Sonia O’Sullivan’s Sydney apartment while she was being interviewed by RTÉ following her silver medal win at the 2000 Games, it was no Haughey-style grab for some reflected glory; instead, he was merely serving the athlete like Kirwan and the USOC purport, being right there at her shoulder, ready to help out with cleaning the sink or making something to eat if needs be.
And as for how he ended up out in front at the last Olympic Games, again he would plead it was all a big mistake – someone else’s big mistake.
At last weekend’s HPX Conference though, staged at the hugely impressive new National Sports Campus, there was a tangible sense that Irish sport was now operating in what Gary Keegan would describe as a “new space”.
And no-one better personified that new space and new era and new breed of administrator than Hickey’s successor as OCI president, Sarah Keane.
In the last panel discussion of the conference, appropriately on the theme of leadership, Keane made a number of telling contributions on her thoughts of the future direction of sports governance in this country. Like Kirwan, she spoke about the need for the athlete being at the centre of everything and how it couldn’t just be rhetoric. “‘Athlete centred.’ What does it mean? It means talking to them, what works for them but also providing an environment that challenges them.”
Other corporate-speak and terms couldn’t go unchecked. It was easy to talk about ‘values’ and ‘integrity’ but what was integrity? In Swim Ireland, her own sport which she remains CEO, they have drawn up a policy with a philosophy but she knows that in itself isn’t enough. It can’t just be a box-ticking exercise. It has to be lived, otherwise language becomes debased.
In swimming they’ve actually dropped the term ‘high’ in ‘high performance’ and just have a performance team which they want everyone to feel part of. When Irish swimmers win on the international stage, they want everyone to feel it was their win, that they contributed — clubs, regional centres, coaches, administrators, athletes. They’re out to win medals but not at the cost of morals, with Keane reiterating one of the themes of the conference, duty of care, most starkly addressed by Baroness Tami Grey Thompson, whose House of Lords enquiry work found some shocking practises in elite sport in Britain.
Keane still has much to do and prove. Can she and the OCI bring in corporate money to support our rowers and track cyclists the way a juggernaut like Dublin GAA can attract commercial partners? We don’t know but optics count in that game and with Keane at the helm the OCI is a much less toxic and much more presentable brand.
She seems to get it. High performance — even though her own sport prefers not to use that term — and what it takes to facilitate it. How coaches need to be supported in order to support the athlete. How administrators are there to facilitate and service the athlete and not the other way around. How the national governing bodies and the government can be partners and not irritants. How a body like the OCI is there to serve, not to be served.
It’ll be reflected in simple things, basic things, important things, like accreditation. As Kirwan pointed out over the weekend, “Accreditation is a performance tool.” Whatever physio or coach a US athlete had with them when competing in the Diamond League in Europe, they had in Rio too.
In the past OCI accreditation has been thrown about as a projection of power, not a performance tool, most notoriously illustrated in the farcical lengths Gary Keegan had to go to in 2008 to have some access to the Irish boxers in Beijing. Instead of finding the OCI as someone to work with, too many athletes and coaches found them something they had to work round. The OCI was in charge, it was their party and if you didn’t like that you could cry if you wanted to.
With Keane the ethos will be different. If she says accreditation is hard to come by, people will be more likely to accept it, knowing that any passes going will be going to aid the athlete, no-one else.
One of the great achievements of Gary Keegan’s tenure as performance director of the Institute of Sport was a sense of collaboration across the sports. Boxing coaches mentored badminton coaches and vice-versa. Performance directors were also encouraged to share their knowledge and experiences. The HPX reflected and further increased that spirit of information sharing and co-operation.
“We need everyone pulling in the same direction,” Kirwan would say on the eve of the 2016 Olympics, three years after he left the Irish Sports Council. “There can be no mavericks who think they’re bigger than the USOC at the Games. You have to leave your ego behind. We are all there in a service role.”
Irish sport and its Olympic Council couldn’t always say the same, but Keane and the HPX last weekend suggests Kirwan’s message may be finally hitting back home.