Speaking at the Sports History Ireland symposium at Boston College on State policy and sport, Irish Examiner columnist and sports historian Dr Paul Rouse of UCD pointed to the background to current state sporting policy, referring back to the 1930s, when Irish army sergeants visited schools to train children on an ad hoc basis, up to reports in the 1960s on the utter absence of a PE programme in many primary schools.
Those reports led to the opening of Thomond College as a dedicated college for physical education teachers in 1973.
Rouse noted the founding of the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism in 1997 as a milestone in State policy on sport, as was the founding of the Irish Sports Council.
Regarding current policy, he said there was “much to commend in the work of the Department and of Sport Ireland — there is research of the very highest order and we have good picture of sport in Ireland, but what’s at issue are the policy choices.”
Rouse added it was “difficult to see how some decisions make sense” when it comes to the allocation of resources to elite athletes as against mass participation, pointing to the scale of the increase in the grants given to inter-county GAA players being greater to the total given to the women in sport programme.
He went on to cite the work of John Considine of UCC, which shows the sports capital budget has been used by ministers for their own constituencies, before adding while much that is admirable has been accomplished, “the State has yet to organise itself to meet the basic requirements for sports in its schools — the guidelines set down by the Department of Education for schools.”
Professor Mike Cronin pointed to the diversity of states’ national sports policies but divided those policies into two main focuses — participation and national prestige.
In terms of participation, Cronin pointed out initiatives such as Sport For All (UK), Play Sport For Australia and HEPA in Europe are all geared towards participation, but asked whether those participation policies succeeded if numbers involved in organised sport have fallen.
He added sports policies focusing on national prestige result in sporting arms races between countries which have little to do with the well-being of the population, pointing out that the commodification of sport as aided by the media and then facilitated by mega-events such as the Olympics and World Cups means sport is bigger than most nation states.
He added the great messages of Fifa and the IOC is about democratisation of their games, and most countries are organised and compete internationally — but also pointed out while there seems to be a ‘bounce’ in participation rates after events such as the Sydney and London Olympic Games, “hosting the Olympics only appears to provide a short-term bounce in participation”.