Mary O’Connor, CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, has welcomed the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus, but has pointed out that it’s a “very difficult” situation for athletes who were gearing up for the Games.
O’Connor said: “Obviously from the Federation’s point of view it was the right call, but it’s very difficult for athletes who are so focused, and who are tailoring their training to take on what is their Everest.
You have to remember some athletes probably saw this as their last Games and now have to prolong their career for another year, and the dedication and resilience athletes have will be tested. They’ll have to reapply themselves.
“Peter Sherrard of the OCI had said we were looking at over 70 athletes going to Tokyo, and while there are some teams going who can rely on each other, a lot of the athletes are solo sportspeople and need support.
“Looking at the positives, it gives athletes who were injured or out of form a better chance now, and it was heartening to hear John Treacy (Sport Ireland CEO) on Morning Ireland say that athletes who were carded and funded for this year will be carded for next year as well. That gives them certainty about their training.”
The postponement is a blow for women in sport, given the boost in visibility the Games has given in the past to athletes from Simone Biles to Sonia O’Sullivan.
“Absolutely, and there’s been exponential growth in the recognition and viewing of women’s sport in the last 12 to 18 months, coinciding with the 20x20 campaign and Sport Ireland.
That visibility is key, it inspires the next generation of athletes, you have all of these fantastic sportspeople in the one venue at an Olympics for a length of time — and it’s all on sport.
“It’s great to introduce people to different sports that they might not have heard of before, and to new stars in established sports who become part of the consciousness.
“When the Olympics and the Paralympics come around eventually, though, I think they’ll be appreciated even more than usual because they’ll be seen as a fightback against this pandemic, a sense of ‘this is what we’re here for’.”
That visibility has also been evident in the number of female sports stars making coronavirus public service announcements in recent weeks.
“I think it helps across the board, because it shows that there’s a human element to this,” says O’Connor.
“A lot of time people see an athlete but don’t realise that when he or she crosses the white line they have to go home to a day job.
“People like (ladies footballers) Caroline O’Hanlon and Caitriona Cormican, they’re doctors on the front line of this, so there’s a power to their call for unity in this, using their status in a way to influence people positively.
“These are the original influencers if you like, the ambassadors that you want to put out in a time of uncertainty. That’s very important.”
For her part, O’Connor says sports are suffering like every other sector in the pandemic.
“We in the Federation represent 110 members, and approximately 14,000 clubs, so our membership is vast. We have national governing bodies which have staff and which have volunteers, but all activity has ceased, essentially.
“Sport is going to become even more important when this pandemic is over, but the shutdown is affecting NGBs (national governing bodies) massively — not just because they can’t run their sport, but in terms of the financial side.
“People need to see sport as a business. Most viewers sees games and teams but there’s a whole back-office side to sport that’s very important. When events and tournaments and games aren’t being run, then there’s no footfall, no gate receipts, no income.
“No coaching courses, no workshops — the golf clubs being shut down recently means no more green fees for them, for instance.
“The lack of events in turn leads to no income from sponsors, no investment. That’s not just a national matter — a club with an astroturf pitch or a hall can’t rent those out for games or events, so its income is gone. And most clubs would have mortgages on their developments.
“A lot of the NGBs we’re talking to are stress-testing their businesses at present, there are professionals whose livelihoods are tied into the sports industry. The news from government about supports is welcome and needs to be applicable to sport also.”
Those supports will need to tailored to the needs of particular sports.
“We’ll be looking for financial support from the government — which is forthcoming, to be fair — but we also need to help NGBs with issues which are specific to them. Every NGB is different: some have clubs which are run on a business model, some are run on a volunteer model, so supporting them is vital.
“We work very closely with Sport Ireland, the statutory funder, and they’ve been excellent. Communication needs to stay open because when you have communication it lessens the uncertainty and the anxiety.
“We mightn’t have the immediate answer to an NGB’s particular issue, but we’ll do our best to find those answers for them. To use an old quote, ‘always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity’.”