Kieran Shannon: John Treacy’s throwaway comment gets neglect of indoor sports out in the open

The evidence internationally is that where there’s a will, there’s a way to continue with indoor sport. But the question is: does the Government and its agencies have that will? Do they care enough to find a way?
Kieran Shannon: John Treacy’s throwaway comment gets neglect of indoor sports out in the open

Sport Ireland chief executive John Treacy. File photo by Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Maybe it was because Stephen Kenny was in the dock around the same time but John Treacy can consider himself fortunate that he was spared a grilling of his own last week.

At an Oireachtas committee meeting, the CEO of Sport Ireland declared, “I don’t think we’ll be seeing indoor sports anytime soon, until we have a vaccine.”

Although the remark was reported in this paper by Cathal Dennehy and in a couple of other media outlets, it pretty much went both unchallenged and uncommented upon. There wasn’t a line about it in a single weekend paper. Instead all the focus was on respective woes and challenges of Kenny and Andy Farrell in their new positions as Irish coaches and whether Tipperary and Cavan could take inspiration from history to create some of their own.

Looking at it, you’d nearly think there were only a few sports that really matter in Ireland, an impression the Government and its agencies have also given recently and which Treacy’s loose remark seemed almost symptomatic of.

In almost any other European country such a remark would triggered major scrutiny, and with it, uproar. That is because in almost every other European country, at least one indoor sport is among its biggest three sports. To close down all indoor sport indefinitely, to bluntly state that the resumption of such a form of sport was “a long way away, unfortunately” without presenting any evidence and when the same country was likely to be moving down to level 3 within days, would have been outrageous.

Ireland is something of an outlier and an oddity. Because of our notoriously damp climate, indoor sport should be massive here: we should be a powerhouse at something the way Denmark is at badminton or Lithuania is in basketball. But because of our unique history and poor infrastructure and laissez-faire ad-hoc approach to sport before the likes of Treacy came along, we’re not.

Yet that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of indoor sport and indoor sports in this country. There is — or at least before this pandemic, there was. And consequently, Treacy’s comments did cause considerable commotion and upset.

Emboldened by its membership that was so put out by Treacy’s remark, Basketball Ireland issued a diplomatic but strong statement last Friday which seemed to infer that from having received subsequent communication and clarification from Treacy, his comments had been merely personal speculation and not actual Sport Ireland or Government policy.

While Basketball Ireland appreciated that Treacy was rightly urging what they termed a “cautious and patient approach” and that by their own admission “indoor activity increases risk”, they wanted greater clarity and support from the Government and its agencies going forward.

“For too long basketball and indoor sport [in general] has been left in the margins when it comes to guidelines handed out by the Government, with proper consideration only given to outdoor sports,” the Basketball Ireland statement continued. “There is a huge cohort of people who are invested physically and emotionally in indoor sport and they need to be listened to and fully considered.”

At the same Oireachtas meeting Treacy did come under some heat from Sinn Féin TD Imelda Munster who criticised the extension of his tenure as CEO without an open interview process and was able to get him to declare his annual salary was €160,000.

But the no indoor sport line has deflected from scrutiny and generated different headlines.

So far domestic indoor sport has yet to be presented with any evidence from Sport Ireland or its return to sport expert group that it triggered a Covid outbreak before the country moved to level 3. If it was fine to play indoor sport under level 2 back in September, why wouldn’t it be fine to do likewise if we’re at level 2 in February?

It’s also worth remembering that some indoor sports are naturally socially-distant. Badminton is the most obvious example. Even when the country was at level two, the sport, like all others, chose to be extremely cautious and safe, and didn’t have any doubles play: any game had to be solely singles. Surely when the country moves back to level 3, it should be safe to resume singles badminton?

The evidence internationally is that where there’s a will, there’s a way to continue with indoor sport. With proper ventilation to go with sanitisation and all the other routine protocols we now all know, safety is almost assured, as all the carded athletes still working training away under the high performance exemption can testify. But the question is: does the Government and its agencies have that will? Do they care enough to find a way?

The optics and makeup of its return-to-play expert group to date has not been encouraging. As you know by now, it basically constitutes a few heads from Sport Ireland, a few more from the Department of Sport and Everything Else, and then just four members representing “the sports sector”, three of which happen to be from the Big Three sports. While it is only right the FAI, GAA, and IRFU are on such a workforce, Sinn Féin TD Chris Andrews makes a valid case in claiming its “too narrow”. Other sports, especially indoor sports, should have been on it too. From such a lack of representation has come a lack of moral authority.

It would seem now the indoor sports are seeking alternative avenues and access to power: that they understand not just the credibility but the influence of the expert group is limited. Tomorrow, up to 20 CEOs from the indoor sports will hold a zoom meeting to further collaborate and plan their path forward. At the weekend, Basketball Ireland wrote a submission to members of the Cabinet, including the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, requesting that the Government present or approve of a pathway for the sport to return to action.

Under its own proposal, basketball is seeking that if the country returns to level 3, that its national league teams can resume training in December and commence its competitive season on January 9 behind closed doors at central locations. And while local and underage basketball teams could resume training in pods at level 3, competitive games in those grades could only tip off when the country goes back to level 2.

Other indoor sports are busy planning away. This week Volleyball Ireland will unveil a fresh new brand and logo, reflecting its unique game-centred and person-centred approach. It is one of the most progressive sports in the country, providing leadership and character-building programmes for all its underage programmes, but so much of that ground could be lost in the coming months. This time last year it had 10,000 registered members with over 900 schools partaking in its competitions. Today it has only 500 registered members. Those schoolkids aren’t able to play it — and according to Treacy, won’t be able to play it even if we go to level 2.

If the sport has to wait until a vaccine for it to resume, that’s a lot of teenagers likely lost to the game. Like every indoor sport, lose this winter and volleyball likely loses kids for a lifetime.

Treacy has done so much for sport, including the indoor sports, in this country over the decades. But he is not bigger than sport or even indoor sport for that matter. He shouldn’t have been so careless about indoor sport in his remarks last week.

And nor should the Government when it comes to outlining how indoor sport, like everything else, goes from here to the time there’s that vaccine. It has to be safe — but it also has to be fair.

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