DERVAL O'ROURKE: System must put the athlete first

Recently, the Irish Sports Council announced it’s funding for 2014.

The total pot for all sports is a whopping €42.5 million, of which High Performance Athletics is allocated €800,000.

I want to share some of my thoughts on how this budget is spent, as I’m a funded athlete.

Athletics is dependent on public money to function. As a sport, we don’t generate enough income privately to possibly survive without being subsidised by taxpayers. Athletics, like many sports, doesn’t have a huge profile. Private sponsors are hard to come by, meaning the vast majority of athletes wouldn’t be able to compete without funding.

With the tough economic climate in recent years and the many cuts in public spending I think all sports people massively appreciate the spend on sport.

Quite simply, without funding I wouldn’t have become European silver medallist, nor would Rob Heffernan have become world champion. Funding is a huge factor in athletes’ achievements, it enables us to train and compete on the world stage. Being funded also brings access to additional support services such as training facilities, physiotherapists and expertise, all a massive help.

Every year when funding is announced, the list of athletes who receive money is published. In a world where peoples’ income is regarded as personal, everyone knows exactly how much we receive, comparable to a company publishing the salaries of all employees annually. No matter what way you look at it, when funding is announced, a value is put on you by your governing body. Every funded athlete is expected to deliver results and we all sign up to a rigorous drug-testing programme and give drug testers access to us every day of the year.

Transparency in funding is a good thing because it’s public money and there should be accountability. From my experience, most funded athletes feel a responsibility to deliver results, justify the investment made in them and a broader responsibility to promote sport. When athletes speak about funding cuts, it often comes across as them moaning about money, but most of the time it is an issue with the process rather than the amount.

I believe the taxpayers’ spend on funding high performance sport trickles down and gives back benefits to all taxpayers and not just the recipients. Performances on the European and world stage boost national morale, giving kids something to aspire to. I loved watching Irish athletes when I was a kid and was massively inspired by them. I believe elite sport is really important for grassroots participation.

Regarding my personal funding situation, I was reduced to €12,000 in 2013 after being on the top level of funding, which is €40,000, for three years.

I didn’t perform well enough to meet the criteria to receive €40,000. I’d no problem with the reduction, but I felt I should have been considered for €20,000.

I felt my performance at the 2013European Indoor Championships, where I finished third, would be indicative that I am worth the investment. I ended up one-hundredth of a second from the silver and gold positions. It was my fifth major championship medal. Unfortunately, it ended up being the only highlight in my year as I injured my Achilles, underwent surgery and missed the bulk of the outdoor season.

Coincidentally, Ciarán Ó Lionáird had a similar year, picking up a bronze medal at the indoors but also had Achilles surgery later in the season. This type of injury is common in track, but I don’t think athletes should be penalised for getting injured.

In terms of funding for 2014, I could have received €12,000 or €20,000. Either decision could be justified, but €12,000 was allocated. Personally, I was disappointed by this. It may seem like my main gripe here is financial but there’s also the intangible effect of decisions like this. It tells me that there is little faith in me to come back and win another championship medal from the powers that be in my sport.

Every Irish athlete who has won a European indoor medal to date has received €20,000 or World Class funding. Ó Lionáird and I are the first to be demoted following this achievement. That leaves me wondering, are these medals no longer valued by Athletics Ireland and, if not, why not? European Cross Country Championship medals are still valued in the higher bracket and most people put these on a par. Yet when the decision to cut funding was made there was no explanation as to why. I run sprint hurdles, so competing in a European Cross Country Championship isn’t an option for me, my equivalent option is the European Indoor Championships. I appealed the grant decision but was informed I wasn’t allowed to query the status of a European indoor medal. The door is closed on questions and queries.

What strikes me as unfair, perhaps even hypocritical, is the funding which is allocated directly to athletes is the only part of the €968,000 (€800,000 from the Irish Sports Council) which is accounted for down to the last euro and every recipient is named. It’s the most discussed aspect of Irish Sports Council funds but it is actually a very small slice of the pie.

In 2014, €168,000 goes directly to 11 athletes, last year four of whom produced medals at a senior championships; Rob Heffernan as world champion, Fionnuala Britton, Ó Lionáird and myself.

So that leaves the High Performance Unit with a balance of €800,000 after the direct funding is subtracted. I’ve contacted Athletics Ireland about the breakdown of this money. It comprises direct funding, services, development and camps, but it’s not clear how much exactly is spent on wages and expenses for the high performance unit. I queried this and they estimate salaries to be 20%, which would be in the region of €197,200.

That means the cost of three support staff (High Performance director, team coordinator and athlete services coordinator) far outweighs the 11 athletes’ direct funding and unlike the athletes’ incomes, this information is much more difficult to access and certainly salaries and names are not listed. It’s unclear how much is spent on expenses.

What Athletics Ireland do say in response is “the Sports Council are very pleased with the current structure” and “the system is very much in line with best practice in other European countries” and “is very targeted and invests in those athletes who provide the greatest chance of delivering performances and medals now and into the future”.

For athletics to be a success, I believe the process needs to become more athlete-friendly. It’s tough enough to go out on the track and battle, I definitely don’t need to be battling with my association as well trying to understand how they choose to spend €968,000.


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