The CEO Series: Miriam Malone - 'The challenge is to reduce costs as much as we can while also supporting athletes'

Paralympics Ireland CEO Miriam Malone on the balance and perspective required to steer her organisation to the most challenging times in history.
The CEO Series: Miriam Malone - 'The challenge is to reduce costs as much as we can while also supporting athletes'

Paralympics Ireland CEO Miriam Malone. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Q: How has this time been for you personally?

A: It’s been an interesting time, combining work and home - I realised early on that the experiences people had in this situation varied widely according to their circumstances, whether they could work from home, what age their kids were and so on. I was lucky that these were all positive for me. I could work from home, my kids are 11 and 12 so they’re mostly independent learners, and I have supportive family and colleagues. I was able to adapt and it worked out well from my perspective.

Q: Have you found out anything that you will stay with you once this is over?

A: Overall it’s been an opportunity for self-reflection and resetting priorities. The main thing has been to keep balance and perspective when it comes to work and life, appreciating all the positive things. From a work perspective, seeing our team in action throughout has been very rewarding. They’re very committed and rose to the challenge, managing extremely well in the crisis. The postponement of the Games was a huge challenge, though.

Q: How are you keeping in touch with your members?

A: We’re Zooming away, using Microsoft Teams, all of that. At the start we drew up a stakeholder mapping exercise and plan, looking to see how we’d stay in contact with all our stakeholders, and that’s worked very well for us.

In the middle of the lockdown we actually had an AGM online, and it was our best-attended so far.

Q: What kind of 2020 had you been looking forward to before this struck?

A: The postponement of the Games was massive, obviously, because we’d been so focused on that not just this year but for the last number of years. When the decision came in March to postpone it was nearly welcome because the world had been changing so rapidly at that stage. There was almost a sense of relief that a decision had finally been taken.

Disappointed as we were, it was completely understandable. Nobody wanted to be taking off to Tokyo under these conditions. But it was a huge change for the athletes. Operationally we could adjust, but the athletes were gearing up to peak at a particular time, so it was a massive adjustment for them.

Q: How severe are the financial losses you anticipate for your organisation?

A: It’ll be interesting. We have two challenges from that perspective. One is the loss of revenue from a fundraising and sponsorship point of view, while the second issue is the ring-fencing of expenditure that would have been geared towards the Games. We still need all that funding, so we have to ring-fence it and carry it through to 2021 - while also supporting our athletes this year. So the challenge is to reduce costs as much as we can while also supporting athletes so we can maintain the level required to compete at Tokyo next year.

Q: What kind of Government supports and direction will help in the crisis?

A: We’ve had a good response from Sport Ireland and the Government overall, to be fair. The guarantee of international athlete carding was a great comfort for the athletes, for instance.

Sport Ireland has engaged with us all the way through, which is great, and we’re lucky to get a significant percentage of our funding from them. It’s been great having that confirmed.

The two outgoing Ministers, Shane Ross and Brendan Griffin, have been very good and I’d like to thank them for that - they kept engaging with CEOs to ensure they listened to what challenges we were having and to adapt as much as they could in a proactive way to deal with those.

Q: Was there a moment you realised this was a challenge on an entirely different scale?

A: Our chief medical officer, Dr Martin McConaghey, was raising the potential problems the virus could cause as early as January, and we had to cancel some competitions at the end of February, which was a little ahead of the big decisions.

Some of the athletes mightn’t have fully understood why we did that then but the big changes were coming, and of course the postponement of the Games was the other big one.

Q: How is morale among members?

A: It’s been good among the athletes. Obviously it’s a very frustrating time for them and their support groups when sport closed down.

It’s particularly frustrating for high-performance athletes who are used to a particular lifestyle which they build around training and competing. Asking them to slow down is a big ask when for them training and competition are their whole careers.

They’ve done really well, though - they’re very resilient and they’re delighted to be getting back to training.

The key for us is to get back to international competition when that time comes. The fact that the Games weren’t cancelled but were postponed, and the fact that there’s a date now in 2021 for the rescheduled Games, was a morale boost for everybody. It’s a real sign there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

Q: Do you see any overseas solutions worth applying in Ireland?

A: It’s been a time of reflection, as I said, and a time to take a strategic look at where we’re going.

From our side we have a unique scenario in that we’re the national governing body for two different sports, para athletics and para swimming.

Overseas, national governing bodies in countries like the Netherlands have moved from a situation like ours to putting these sports in with their able-bodied equivalents with very encouraging results.

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