Following a successful 2018, Sport Ireland Institute Director Liam Harbison believes a bright future lies ahead for the next generation of high performance athletes.
Speaking at their Annual Review in Abbotstown yesterday, the Portmarnock native also expanded on a strategy that is set to sustain the Institute up to 2024 and beyond.
“It’s an exciting time to be involved in high performance sport in Ireland,” said Harbison. “Over the years, there’s always been two, three, or four sports have won a medal or two at major championships.
"But last year was a huge step forward, where nearly all the high performance sports won major medals at European or world level.
“I think our job in the Sport Ireland Institute and Sport Ireland is to work with the sports to make last year the norm, rather than the exception.
"Particularly with the national sports policy committing to tripling the investment between now and 2028, there’s a huge opportunity there for those athletes who are only young now.
“We’ve a pretty clear blueprint now up until the end of 2024. We really want to get deeply embedded with the development squads of the main sports at an earlier age: the ages of 16 and 17, rather than 19, 20, 21, which we do now.
"We’re building a plan currently to put in a team of development service providers to try and kick off that programme straight after Tokyo next year.”
2018 also saw the Institute developing a new partnership with the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI).
That has created a greater system alignment between the bodies, with the Sport Ireland Institute providing support to Team Ireland at the 2018 Youth Games in Buenos Aires and the subsequent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
At a time when the Football Association of Ireland is coming under intense scrutiny, Harbison is reaping the benefits of working alongside the reformed OFI.
“We all know what happened around Rio, but ultimately through every crisis opportunity emerges. I think the changes in the OFI really have transformed the organisation.
"I think also, pre-existing relationships between people in here, people in Sport Ireland, people in the new OFI. I think we all saw the benefits of working together and properly aligning the systems.
“That partnership was announced last year, which we worked on as 18 months of negotiations. The benefits of it are actually much greater than we would have anticipated. Our level of engagement and work with the OFI have far exceeded what we had anticipated early doors.
“Ultimately it’s the OFI, the national governing bodies of sport and Sport Ireland working closely together. All going in the same direction towards hopefully great success at Tokyo and Paris .”
The next few months will be crucial for all of Ireland’s Olympic hopefuls and the recent 10th place for the Women’s Team pursuit foursome at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Poland offers significant encouragement.
Under the guidance of performance director Brian Nugent, the team of Orla Walsh, Mia Griffin, Alice Sharpe, and Kelly Murphy combined to set a new national record of 4:29.148.
The squad currently has an established training base in Mallorca, Spain, but Harbison reiterated Sport Ireland’s commitment to building a velodrome in the next couple of years.
“There is a plan to turn the sod on a Velodrome in 2020. I think there’s a two-year build for that. I think that’s the aim certainly within the master plan for the campus and I think monies have been earmarked already with the department through Sport Ireland.
"As I always say, the lack of a velodrome has also created a challenge and also created a bond within that team.
“The example given today by Orla Walsh and Brian Nugent working with Paul Carragher [the team’s physiotherapist], they have made the environment that they have work for them in Mallorca and here,” Harbison explained.
“Ultimately, they should still be able to perform at a high level and their 10th place ranking in the World Championships was a phenomenal return.
"They’re only going one way, that track programme is going one direction. That can only be complimented and enhanced by the provision of a velodrome in Ireland.
"That’s definitely in the plans in the near future.”