The big interview with Liam Harbison: Breakfast, boccia, and boosting performance

Outside the National Sports Campus, people like Liam Harbison don’t register, a bit like the powerbrokers pulling the strings in the West Wing. Dubliner Harbison is the ‘chief of staff’, one of the most powerful and influential people in an Irish sporting landscape that has capitalised on the political fallout following the Rio Olympics.

The big interview with Liam Harbison: Breakfast, boccia, and boosting performance

Outside the National Sports Campus, people like Liam Harbison don’t register, a bit like the powerbrokers pulling the strings in the West Wing. Dubliner Harbison is the ‘chief of staff’, one of the most powerful and influential people in an Irish sporting landscape that has capitalised on the political fallout following the Rio Olympics.

“Somewhere in this building is our talent.”

- Toby Ziegler in The West Wing, Season One, ‘Enemies’

This is where the winning is done, far away from the lights and the masses.

Just past the National Aquatic Centre and through the security barrier on your left, you don’t so much enter a land or boulevard of dreams as embark on a trek as spartan and meandering as the path to success itself.

Stretching out in front of you is the sprawling National Sports Campus in Abbotstown and, while the magnificent edifice that is the National Indoor Arena then looms into view, once you pass it you’re back to a ribbon of more mundane-looking buildings which resemble a small-scaled industrial complex.

It is here, just beyond FAI headquarters and the offices of various other national governing bodies, where the one-storey Institute of Sport — or the Sport Ireland Institute as it is now known — hides.

Not so long ago, its interior used to be pretty rudimentary too, but step inside now and you’re ushered into the future. An area that once squeezed in a gym and a physio clinic is now a plush, open kitchen space that extends into a lobby with multi-coloured chairs and coffee tables.

Like everything else that goes on in here, some thought went into that.

“We call it a social ecology space,” explains Liam Harbison, the director of the institute, quickly adding that the idea was not his, but that of his “visionary” predecessor and colleagues.

“What Gary [Keegan] and [performance services director Phil [Moore] were trying to create was a hub for the high-performance community — athletes, coaches, performance directors, CEOs — where you could have a cross-sharing of knowledge and expertise and those conversations are now happening,” says Harbison. “Walk in here on a given morning and you might see a [boxing performance director] Bernard Dunne sitting down with a [sailing performance director] James O’Callaghan, or [modern pentathlon World Cup champion] Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe talking with [diver] Ollie Dingley, athletes from different sports building relationships that lend themselves to a greater sense of Team Ireland by the time the Games come in Tokyo.

“Before, an athlete might have come in here to do a S&C session, then head off. They weren’t using the place as a whole. The way the place is designed now, they’re more likely to stay and interact with others.”

Harbison reckons that the busiest machine on the entire campus must be the java coffee machine in the kitchen. Now, an athlete can have a cuppa with their coach and mingle with other high performers before moving to the medical area, gradually working their way down to the training zone.

“It makes for a pleasant environment. I’ve been in similar campus-type arrangements in other parts of the world and they’re generally soulless, heartless places. This isn’t.”

Our visit happens to be on a Wednesday, one of two mornings every week that the institute openly invites all members of the high-performance community to breakfast.

Harbison was initially sceptical when Sharon Madigan, the nutritionist, pitched the idea as a way to monitor the intake of athletes, particularly swimmers heading from their early-morning pool session to a strength session. Now, he’s delighted he gave her the benefit of the doubt and her expertise. Not only are they identifying potential red flags about the pre-fuelling habits of athletes, but it’s further strengthened the peer network; physios, sport psychologists, performance analysts sitting down and shooting the breeze with each other and athletes over muesli.

The scheme has proven to be so popular, Harbison has noticed how most activities in the institute are now veering towards Wednesdays and Fridays, the two mornings it hosts the breakfast club. He can live with that. What matters is that the hub is humming, buzzing.

Outside this campus, hardly anyone knows who Moore and Madigan are, or cares or appreciates what they do. Even Harbison wouldn’t register with folk who’d fancy themselves as Jimmy Magee in any reboot of Know Your Sport. When a popular sports website picked up on a personal blog he wrote to express how emotionally conflicted he felt following the epic 2017 All-Ireland football final, they never made the link that the Dublin native married to a Mayo woman was the same Liam Harbison that held one of the most powerful roles in Irish sport.

Here in west Dublin it’s a bit like the West Wing staff that Aaron Sorkin so masterfully dramatised and personalised. The Phil Moores, Kate Kirbys and Daragh Sheridans, like Paul McDermott in the Sports Council, are Irish sport’s Toby Zieglers, CJ Creggs, Sam Seaborns, Josh Lymans, with a Harbison or John Treacy their Leo McGarry, chief of staff, crucially, not their president.

Since Rio especially and the fallout from a hotel room raid, there’s a pervasive understanding throughout the Sport Ireland community that they’re all there to serve at the pleasure of the athlete, not some supreme figurehead; any Trumpian delusions that it’s all about you belong to a bygone era. The athlete is the president, the one they spend the midnight oil burning for, preparing breakfast on Wednesdays and Fridays for, so that his or her boat can go faster.

The masses that urge on and welcome home the O’Donovan brothers and Annalise Murphys may have no idea of such devotion and consideration, but just as in Washington, where the anoraks and movers and shakers knew well the influence a Ziegler or McGarry carried, in Abbotstown and the Irish high-performance community, the sway and contribution of a Keegan or Harbison is in little doubt.

You think it’s happened by accident that Ireland won more medals in 2018 than it ever had? It happened by design. By serious graft and serious reflection, not just in the gym or the arena, but in the office, by someone behind a laptop, appreciative of the wonders of a java coffee machine.

THE FALL AND RISE OF LIAM HARBISON

So how does a Liam Harbison end up in the business of the administration of Olympic and Paralympic sport?

Because when he was 19, visiting his sister in Budapest one summer, they went horse riding. And as he puts it, “My horse didn’t take a shine to me.” When it reared up and threw him off, he landed on his neck and couldn’t feel a thing below it.

“I was terrified, in intensive care, not knowing what the damage was. About four hours later, I felt a shot of pain run through me and I could tell from the pigeon English of the doctors that I hadn’t broken my back. I eventually got out and spent the rest of the two weeks over there on the floor of my sister’s apartment.

“When I got home and checked out here, they said I had pulled all the soft tissue off my spinal cord. I couldn’t turn or twist. Every cough or laugh just killed me. For three or four months, I basically couldn’t move my trunk. At one point I thought I mightn’t walk again. I really struggled.”

By nine months, though, he was walking freely again and, within the year, jogging. Harbison was a student at Waterford RTC, as it was known back then, one of the few third-level institutions at the time that offered a course in recreation management. It included a module in therapeutic exercise and, informed by his own experience, he was curious about the plight of others more severely challenged.

“Before the fall, my attitude would have been win, win, win, whether it was playing volleyball, golf, basketball. When I was lying on my back, I was in the shits, thinking, ‘God, sport has been my life and I might not be able to play it anymore’, but then I started to think, ‘wait, what about someone who is disabled, maybe all their life, and the power sport might have to improve their life and self-esteem?’”

It would form the basis of a dissertation involving members of Cerebral Palsy Sport Ireland, who’d conclusively prove his hypothesis about the benefits of sport correct. Even after handing in his thesis, he continued to make his way out to the CPSI club in Sandymount every week, taking the crosstown DART from his home in Portmarnock. Soon, he found himself being asked to help the boccia team at the European championships. His first question was the same as yours – what’s boccia? – but three weeks later he was in Bilbao airport, being handed a letter from CPSI founder Brenda Greene: By the way, you’re the team manager.

He was barely 20, left in charge of a party of six men with severe impairments and their five helpers. Yet, by the end of the week he’d fallen in love with the sport — a form of bowls, by the way — and those guys.

“I never really thought about it at the time, but I suppose it was because I felt lucky that I was fine again and others weren’t as lucky and, after a lot of reflection over the years, I’ve realised that I’m at my happiest when I’m giving. I love seeing people develop and here was a group of people, who had never really been given a chance to give it a proper shot.

“They would meet maybe once a year, have a little competition and the winners would be sent to represent Ireland at a major competition, and their equipment was shite. There’s a certain type of class in the sport where they play with a ramp and we were having to use a wavin pipe for one, so I put a plan to the committee. ‘I’d like to try this.’ ‘Ah, it’s been tried before.’ ‘No, I really think we should try this.’”

He contacted the 34 people who had ever played the game in the previous 20 years. A fortnight later, 19 arrived at a scrubbed-up old hall in Dun Laoghaire to be told the plan was that some of them would take part and win at the Sydney Paralympics.

“At first, they were very much the classic institutionalised type, all in their duffle coats, but within a month we had turned it. They were arriving in their tracksuits with their water bottles.”

Where before they used to convene once a year, they now met up 26 times a year, every second week for a full weekend camp. He was able to lure Caroline McManus to provide physiology support; Alan Ringland to offer sport psychology support, helping the indomitable John Cronin develop a routine that would psych out his opponents before they ever left the call room. Even Harbison’s fiancé Maureen would dig in and help out.

In Sydney, they’d top the medals table in the sport, the remarkable Cronin and Margaret Grant coming out on top in the mixed pairs BC3, and Gabriel Shelly winning gold in the mixed individual BCI class.

For Harbison it was amazing, but not enough. He could see that the structure and culture of the Council was off. They’d split the team into three groups: Blind, CP and wheelchair. It seemed more about the disability than the sport, more about politics than performance. The CPSI didn’t appear too pushed about driving the boccia programme on either, so he stepped away. He had Maureen to marry, a leisure centre in the Grand Hotel Malahide to help run, and some volleyball to play.

Candidate Santos staffer: How’s headquarters?

Josh Lyman: It exists and that’s a start.

- The West Wing, Season Seven, ‘The Ticket’

It’s probably no coincidence that the institute’s first two full-time directors have been two of its earliest champions: Gary Keegan and Harbison.

After the calamity for Irish sport that was the Sydney Olympics, the state recognised a more strategic approach was needed to give Irish athletes a chance on the world stage. Ahead of Athens, it helped fund and create five performance director positions: one apiece for athletics, rowing, sailing, boxing and Paralympics Ireland. Keegan landed the boxing gig, Harbison the one with paralympics. After seeing the issues he had in Sydney and the job advert, he decided to be part of the solution.

“My first office was my kitchen,” he says, smiling. “I remember my first day: I went into my boss, [Paralympics Ireland founder and president] Anne Ebbs and said, ‘okay, what do you want me to do?’ and Anne was like, ‘I don’t know, whatever you want!’ The five of us [performance directors] were all new professionals imposed on our sports, but we’d all meet for lunch a few times a year, because we all had similar challenges and issues, and from that myself and Gary would form a great relationship.”

Within a couple of years, Harbison was making a three-hour round-trip from his kitchen in Termonfeckin, just outside Drogheda, to an office block in Park West, and within a couple of more years, he was spending more time heading out to Abbotstown. In the summer of 2006, the Irish Institute of Sport was established, with former GAA president Sean Kelly as its first chairperson. For a body like Paralympics Ireland, it was a godsend. Only boxing, headed by the driven Keegan, embraced its services as readily.

It told in Beijing. All three of Ireland’s medals at that Olympics were won by boxers. At the Paralympics, Ireland captured five medals, three gold, but as well as leaning heavily on the institute, which Keegan would join and lead immediately after those 2008 games, Keegan and Harbison would lean on each other.

Two days before Kenny Egan’s final, Harbison was already in Beijing, helping set up the Paralympic team’s training camp ahead of their arrival. The morning of Egan’s final, he had a sudden urge to witness potential history and headed down to the Workers Indoor Arena where outside on the street he’d secure a ticket from David Gillick’s sister. As luck would have it, he’d end up watching the fight alongside Keegan who, once his initial disappointment at Egan having to settle for silver instead of gold had subsided, he asked for a favour.

“At the time, with Irish Paralympics, we’d bring in a series of guest speakers to help inspire them and also normalise the idea that they themselves were elite athletes. So I said to Gary, ‘today’s Sunday and you guys leave on Tuesday, right? Any chance you could get the boxers to meet our team tomorrow night?’”

Keegan’s reflex was to baulk: Jesus, Liam, these guys have been on lockdown for the past seven weeks! They had pints to drink and other fruits of their status as Olympic athletes to enjoy, but Harbison had a solution: He only needed them for 20 minutes. If Keegan could get them to the Paralympic team room, Harbison would lay on a bus to take them straight to whatever bar in Beijing they wanted.

The next morning, he got a text back from Keegan.

“Billy [Walsh] and Kenny are actually quite keen to do it. Who else do you want?” Harbison’s reply: “All of ye.” He didn’t just want the lads who’d won medals, but he wanted to hear about the experiences of those who hadn’t.

Later that day, the Paralympic team flew in. There must have been 80 people between athletes, volunteers, and officials in the hotel team room when Harbison had a little surprise for them.

“And in walked the whole boxing team and, oh my God, the reception they got. The whole room was literally on its feet. There was actually a bit of shock on the faces of Kenny and Darren [Sutherland] and I remember saying to them, ‘lads, this is just a taste of what you’re going to get back home.’

“The guys stayed with our team for three hours that night and they all spoke.

“There were individual conversations, photographs were taken. I can’t tell you the mood that generated. Even a week later, our guys were still talking about the lift it gave them. That the boxers on their last night in Beijing took the time to come and spend it with them.”

London-calling Carol: Congratulations, boss.

CJ Cregg: Nice job. Take the rest of the night off.

Carol: Yeah. It’s one in the morning.

- The West Wing, Season Three, ‘10,000 Airplanes’

For Liam Harbison, there’s a takeaway memory from every Games. In Athens it wasn’t of any of the four athletes that he and his staff accurately identified as podium prospects, but rather one that didn’t produce any medal, just a golden moment.

John Fulham entered those 2004 Paralympics as European 100m and 200m champion and a veteran of three previous Games. In Athens, he’d made the final of the 100m and was expected to sail into the final of the 200, but the morning of its opening heat, Harbison decided to head along just in case something happened. Something did. As in, it just didn’t happen for Fulham.

“I saw him coming through the mixed zone, and both he and I knew that was his last ever race when no one else there did, and we took a bit of a stroll under the stand and went into this room and sat there, and we must have sat there for two hours, just him speaking about his career and what it meant to him and how he had seen para sport come on from his first games in Barcelona.

“It was an athlete just having an emotional release, but for me the thing about it was, ‘what if I hadn’t been there?’ because there was nobody else there. It brought home to me just how privileged the access we have to some of the really key moments in athletes’ lives and the importance of making sure we manage their exit.”

For London, the standout memory was of watching open-mouthed as Mark Rohan assembled his wheelchair bike from scratch in an underground carpark for three hours. The measuring tape between the teeth. The focus. The attention to detail. Incredible.

You wouldn’t believe the time, effort and thought that Harbison himself and his staff put in, though. Like how they asked all the athletes if there was anyone they particularly did or didn’t want to room with in London so no one’s snoring affected them the night before their event. Like how he had four bereavement scenarios in place to help alleviate the stress on several athletes trying to cope with both the biggest competition of their lives and that they had unwell loved ones in danger of passing away any day. Like how he didn’t just become Paralympic Ireland’s CEO for London, but its chef de mission.

For Beijing, they had one sponsor. For London they secured 18. With it effectively being a home Games, no opportunity could be let pass. The target was to have at least five medallists and 14 finalists. They’d end up with 16 medallists, eight gold.

Harbison should have been elated. Instead, he was exhausted. A few months after that gold rush, he would calculate how many nights the year leading into the Games he had been on his laptop after 1am, firing away emails and memos. The answer was too frightening to reveal here. “I was in a bad place, personally. Toast, really.” For Rio, he’d tone it down. He’d delegate more, learn to say no more and not feel guilty about it. It worked. Ireland won 11 medals at those Paralympics. But a few months out from his fifth Paralympics, he decided this one would be the last.

“A sense of sameness was creeping in and I think every organisation needs a new voice every eight to 10 years, anyway. When I told Maureen I was now ready to try something different, she was a bit shocked; because of my history and how I came into the job, it had been a vocation to me, but I had given myself to the job in a way that wasn’t sustainable and where I thought ‘I need to get off this rollercoaster’.” So, he jumped onto another.

‘WHAT’S NEXT?’

Toby Ziegler: “We’re a group. We’re a team… We win together, we lose together. We celebrate together and we mourn together. And defeats are softened and victories sweeter, because we did them together. You’re my guys and I’m yours… and there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

- The West Wing, Season Three, ‘War Crimes’

This is not the first time we’ve sought an interview with Harbison upon him succeeding Keegan as the institute director in February 2017. Beyond the fact that he prefers to see himself and his role as like that of the good referee that you don’t notice, he wanted to wait until the institute had something concretely different and significant on his beat.

Last month’s athlete-centred partnership agreement with the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI) is something hugely significant and different for Irish sport. Not just the name of what was once the OCI (Olympic Council of Ireland) has changed, so has its entire outlook.

The agreement was 18 months in the works, but in a way it had been in the making for years. In his time with the Paralympic Council, Harbison would regularly collaborate with Sarah Keane in her role with Swim Ireland. Even Australian Tricia Heberle, the OFI’s choice of high performance lead, had previously worked with the institute’s Phil Moore back when she was head coach of British hockey and he was their sport psych. Once they all struck up conversations in their new roles, it was apparent that the will and opportunity for a new approach to Irish Olympic sport was there.

“I think after what happened in Rio, there was definitely a desire amongst the people working in Irish at a high-performance level for a change and to grasp a chance to properly align the system, that there wouldn’t be territorial disputes. In no way am I denigrating the contribution people made, but there were often certain barriers and constraints.”

The way it used to work was this: the institute, with the backing of the various national governing bodies, would provide expert support for athletes — be it medical, nutrition, sport psych, whatever — for all but five or six weeks of a four-year Olympic cycle, only for all those service providers to have to make way for personnel the OCI had selected as their people to work at the Games. In many cases, that OCI personnel, though undoubtedly professional, wouldn’t have had any prior rapport with the athlete. On the eve of the most critical event in the career of an athlete, new relationships would have to be suddenly forged, established ones unnecessarily parked.”

Often, the OCI’s resources at those Games wouldn’t be optimally deployed. In Rio, they unwittingly had too many doctors and not enough physios. Their DNA and focus was still too political and not enough about performance. The OFI wanted to be more — all — about performance.

“After what happened in Rio, they (the OCI-OFI) were really starting from scratch. They had to deal with a governance change, a new commercial programme, appoint a new CEO… So what we were able to say was, ‘well, listen, there’s an area over here — performance support — that you don’t really have to look after, if you let us do it’, and that’s a shift. Previously, they (the OCI) would have been very possessive — ‘no, the Games are ours’ — but now there’s an understanding, we’re not here to take it off you, we’re prepared to do it for you, on your behalf, as a contracted partner.

“We’d work very closely with all the sports on an annual and daily basis: John Rudd and Sarah Keane in Swim Ireland, Bernard Dunne and Fergal Carruth in boxing. Yet, come the Games, we wouldn’t be the ones providing that direct support to their athletes, so there was a disconnect in the system and I don’t see how it aided athlete performance. What an athlete wants at the critical time in their career is a support team around them that they know and trust. That’s a very important relationship. Traditionally, that wasn’t [prioritised] in the Irish Olympic team. Now, there’s that continuity of care.”

Harbison is aware that it works both ways under the new alliance: That if the institute is to be a partner to the OFI, then that means it has to accept a greater deal of accountability, but that’s something he’s perfectly fine with, that’s something he embraces. If there are failures — and there will undoubtedly be failures and mistakes — then, he says, the institute will duly learn and adapt and improve from them.

That’s what they do, anyway. Since assuming the role vacated by Keegan, Harbison also set about developing a statement strategy for the institute for the next six years. One of its six clear objectives is to extend its support services to younger athletes, not just those looking to compete in Tokyo. “We need to be getting to them earlier,” he says.

More immediately, there’s the challenge of Tokyo being the first Olympics for all but three of the performance directors who the institute deals with, which is where the beauty and synergy of the new partnership of the OFI again kicks in. The same Tricia Heberle who will be the OFI chef de mission in 2020 has for the past three months been leading the institute’s programme for developing performance directors, similar to how the recently-departed and highly-rated Daragh Sheridan used to prepare head coaches for the greatest show on earth.

The campus is forever upgrading and expanding too. Later this year, the IRFU will relocate its headquarters to here. By the year’s end, hockey will have a pitch here as well, while at some point in 2020 the sod should be turned on a velodrome and badminton centre.

Athlete accommodation also needs to grow. Gymnastics Ireland currently rent a nearby house for European champion Rhys McClenaghan and his coach, while a few swimmers also live in the neighbourhood, but in time Harbison envisages something similar to what Kilmurry village has offered UL sport, and, eventually, a hotel on campus. The ambition is there and, finally, the backing.

“If you look at the 12 sports inside the Irish high-performance system, every single one of them won major medals [in 2018]. Normally, in a given year, only two or three would, so I think the job and challenge for all of us professionals working in the system is that a 2018 should be the norm, not the exception.

“We now have a national sports policy published by the Government which makes it very clear it will triple its investment in high performance over the next 10 years. That’s a powerful statement and commitment to high-performance sport and we now have athletes in the system that fully believe they can be the best in the world, on the back of the support that is available to them.

“So there’s a giddy expectation and energy around the system. The opportunity for excuses are pretty much removed.”

Nearly 25 years on from a young recreation management graduate telling a crew of duffle-coated boccia players in a barn in Dun Laoghaire that they could stand on a world podium, Irish sport across the board is finally thinking and working like Liam Harbison.

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