BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Politicians hog sporting glory without giving financial graft

Leo Varadkar watching Munster v Toulon in Thomond Park. Pic: Brendan Gleeson

Charlie and his appearances on the Champs Elysee in 1987 and at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico three years later, writes Brendan O’Brien. 

Bertie and his Bowl. Minister Shane Ross gurning for a picture with the Six Nations trophy last month. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar sporting his red scarf at Thomond Park on Saturday afternoon.

Our politicians have long cottoned on to the benefits of a personal attachment to high-profile sporting stories, but the interest from our public representatives wasn’t nearly so devotional last week when there was a noticeable absence of fanfare and media interest. Committee Room 2 had been booked for a session of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Sport.

On the agenda was government funding for minority sports and the Capital Sports Programme. A handful of top sporting administrators, including Sport Ireland, had been called in at short notice to offer their expertise.

First things first, though. For almost two-and-a-half hours, the politicians played their own little games, with Mr Ross giving as good as he got over criticism of the decision by his department to award €150,000 to Old Wesley College, a private, fee-paying school situated in his own constituency. Only then were the various sports bodies ushered in from the wings.

Their audience by then was all but gone, chairman Fergus O’Dowd being among nine committee members who had more urgent business elsewhere.

Only two of their brethren were on hand to hear opening submissions already whittled down on the request of the committee, as the earlier point-scoring had required extra-time.

The whole episode was tokenistic. Window dressing. An insulting charade that is all too typical of the body politic’s disinterest in the sector outside of those occasions when Stephen Roche, Jack Charlton, or Joe Schmidt engineer the sort of headlines and photo ops that shed favour on everyone within the frame.

Thus, Mary O’Connor, chief executive of the Federation for Irish Sport, spoke about the financial, societal, and health benefits of sport to an audience dominated by like-minded souls. John Treacy, Sport Ireland chief executive, detailed funding levels that remain lower than levels from seven and even 10 years ago. Preaching to the converted, basically.

John Treacy
John Treacy

What those deputies and senators missed out on was a fascinating and frightening glimpse into the hand-to-mouth existence which is the day-to-day reality for most of our sporting bodies: The loaves and fishes operations required just to keep their sports of choice on subsistence rations.

Hamish Adams, Rowing Ireland chief executive, revealed that Ireland’s Olympic medallists and world champions are seeking berths in Tokyo in 2020 in boats that are four-years-old and therefore slower than those of their competitors. Let’s all think about that the next time we see Paul and Gary O’Donovan on The Late Late Show.

Jim Treacy, chairman of the Republic of Ireland Billiards and Snooker Association, revealed how half of his NGB’s core funding grant of €63,000 went to pay their one employee, while the remainder had to run the association and go some way towards international travel costs for their elite players who have won European and world titles.

“There’s a frustration over the lack of recognition they get for that,” he said of those successes.

It was a line that could have summed up the entire gathering last week, given Treacy addressed his remarks to a bench which, Fianna Fáil TDs Kevin O’Keeffe and Robert Troy aside, was devoid of deputies and senators.

Sean Fleming had already spoken by then. A former county footballer with Antrim and a county hurling champion with O’Donovan Rossa, Fleming is the president of the Irish Judo Association (IJA). His son Eoin is one of three good hopes of an Irish judo representative at the 2020 Olympics.

The IJA received €70,000 from Sport Ireland in core funding each of the last few years. Another €45,000 came via high-performance grants, while they got €4,000 through the Women In Sport programme.

As much as €28,000 pays for insurance, with another significant chunk going to their one full-time and one part-time staff members.

It doesn’t be long going, not when you consider it cost €300,000 to get Lisa Kearney to the 2012 Olympics.

Lisa Kearney
Lisa Kearney

One-third of that was covered by Sport Ireland technical funding, another third in high-performance funding and the rest through what Fleming described as “a variety of sources”.

“Begging and scrimping and basically getting money,” he explained.

He should know. He joked last week about how he is sometimes called “Daddy Morebucks”.

The money parents pour into their kids so they can fulfil their sporting dreams in this country is eye-watering, even with his own son launching online crowdfunding campaigns and receiving sponsorship from local firms in Antrim.

Then again, some scenarios are better in the North than in the 26 counties. The IJA is a 32-county organisation, but some players are affiliated to the Northern Ireland Judo Federation (NIJF), which is a part of GB Judo.

The NIJF has received almost £1m from Sport Northern Ireland for an emerging talent programme over five years.

The IJA has €30,000 a year to fund their equivalent. These are the sports stories we need our politicians to embrace.

If only.


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