Derval O’Rourke has questioned the Government’s funding strategy for elite Irish athletes on the back of the decision this week to treble state grants for female inter-county Gaelic games players and bring them into line with monies received by their male counterparts.
The move, as revealed by Minister of State for Sport Jack Chambers, has been widely welcomed in the context of gender equality, but it has prompted questions over the imbalance between monies directed to Gaelic players and athletes in all other sports.
As highlighted in the Irish Examiner this week, the latest funding boost means that 67% of all government grants awarded directly to elite athletes in this country now goes to Gaelic games with the rest divvied up between 130 athletes and six relay squads across 16 sports.
O’Rourke, like many, sees this as the multi-faceted issue it is. A five-time medallist in major athletics events, she had her own issues with a paucity of funding during her hurdling career. She now has a daughter playing camogie and appreciates the value such games have for a local community.
Her first take on this week’s news was to applaud the Gaelic Players Association (GPA) for securing the increase in funds for female players and the message it sends for all female sports. Yet, for her, it raises questions as to the Minister and the Government’s wider and long-term motivations.
“Don’t just come out with throwing some money at something and looking for positive headlines,” she said. “Come out and say, ‘I am putting the money into this because this is my strategy and that’s how I am about it’. Maybe the way it is being done, I don’t know, are we big-picture thinking here?”
Among the questions asked by O’Rourke was whether the focus in this instance is on participation or elite athletes. If it’s the former, then that’s one argument given the reach of Gaelic games nationwide, but even this is a more nuanced discussion.
The 2009 World Indoor 60m champion offered the example of Mayo’s Sarah Quinn, a member of the Irish 4x200m team that claimed silver at the World Relay Championships earlier this month, and the effect that this achievement had on her local community.
What, she wondered, would participation levels be like in other sports if funding was equalised across the board? And what of other sports, such as basketball, gymnastics, and hockey, with such a preponderance of female athletes as well? How do we measure their true worth in that context, and others, when it comes to funding?
“What are our goals here as a nation?” she asked.
What are we doing? I’ve my own business, I don’t spend any money without knowing what the end game is, so what’s the craic? It’s probably good I’m not in the meetings.”
O’Rourke has every respect for elite Gaelic games but is unapologetic in stating that it can’t be compared to the Olympics. Only the most myopic would disagree with that but she has no interest in whataboutery here.
She has instead challenged other sports to up their games and support their athletes.
“I would be thinking, ’okay, how do we advocate for more funding for our sports? How do we secure more funds for our athletes? Is it okay that we are sending athletes to the Olympics with minimum funding and minimum support?’”
O’Rourke knows what it is to struggle for lack of funds. She had to make do without a government grant for a three-year period through the mid-noughties. She suffered a wipeout of state and sponsorship income at the time of the economic crash in 2008.
She spoke yesterday of an athlete carding scheme which, when she was trying to qualify for Sydney in 2000, was dealing in grants in the region of €12-40,000 and which has remained at similar levels across two decades.
Ireland, she says, is simply not doing enough to support its elite international athletes.
“The fact it has stayed the same since 2000: imagine if you worked somewhere and there was absolutely no change to your wages from when you started out of school. It is crazy stuff and it wouldn’t happen so I would love a full review of it.”