FERGUS FINLAY: Ireland needs to build on team success for next Olympiad in Rio

AMID all the deserved celebration, there has to be some sober and hard-headed analysis of our Olympic performance.

I’m not saying that to be negative, but because it needs to be said.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Irish people, I’m a sports fan. I never heard of something called Laser Radial sailing before the Olympics, but that didn’t stop me from cheering myself hoarse for Annalise Murphy during her medal race, or cursing the system that allowed her to perform so brilliantly for a week and then have to rely on a single race and the luck of a gust of wind. And poor old Rob Heffernan in the 50k walk — a genuine hero, he smashed the national record by a mile, and had to settle for fourth.

Of course it was the Irish team’s best performance at an Olympic Games for many years. Of course we discovered new heroes. Of course it lifted our spirits. Those who were lucky enough to be there, or had the foresight to plan and apply for tickets, will never forget it.

The rest of us, who were glued to the telly throughout and discovered a new fascination in all sorts of things like the velodrome and synchronised swimming, will remember it fondly as one of the highlights of an otherwise pretty drab summer.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned. It’s great to be able to think about lessons against a background of decent success. Ireland doesn’t have to spend four years wondering how to turn failure into achievement. Instead our sports authorities need to figure out how to turn success into sustained and sustainable achievement.

Ireland is ranked 41st in the official medals table published on the Olympic Games website. That’s a table where the countries are ranked according to the number of gold medals they won, then silver, then bronze. If you were to rank countries according to the total number of medals, without differentiation as to colour, we are joint 38th in the world, along with Turkey, Lithuania, and Mongolia.

Out of the 85 countries on the medal table, that’s not bad. We’re just above the middle. In terms of overall medals, we’re not in the top 20, like New Zealand, Cuba, Holland or Canada.

Shouldn’t we be asking ourselves why not? We’re a sports mad country, capable of producing world-class athletes (Rory McIlroy, Henry Shefflin, Brian O’Driscoll — any of us can compile a list as long as your arm). Shouldn’t we be looking at a position around the middle of a world table, and decide immediately that the task has to be to do better the next time? Is funding the answer? In one sense yes — if we had the money, we could and should be investing a lot more in decent facilities around the country. I used to think there was some merit in the “Bertie Bowl” idea. But it’s surely clear now that if we had invested in that, and still expected boxers to learn and train in facilities that don’t have showers or toilets or even running water in one case, we’d have added insult to injury.

And it wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to conduct an audit of basic training facilities and ensure they’re up to decent standards. But apart from that, it’s certainly not clear to me that there’s a deficit in terms of funding for our Olympic effort.

The Sports Council has an admirably clear and transparent system of reporting how its money is distributed. And it’s no small amount for a small country. There’s a list of contracted world class athletes — nearly 40, including paralympians. They each get annual grants, up to a maximum of €40,000 a year — no windfall, but enough to enable them to work full-time at their sports.

And there’s a detailed breakdown by athlete of the total investment. If you click Katie Taylor’s name on the Sports Council website, you’ll discover that she has been supported since 2005, and that the total investment made in Katie to date has been €289,600. And you’ll find this additional information about Katie: four time World Champion, five time Euro Champion, World Ranking 1. I’m betting they can’t wait to update the website to include Gold Medal 1! Money doesn’t guarantee a medal. The total investment in Eoin Rheinisch, for instance, has been €326,428 (since 2001). I’m not singling him out to say or imply that he shouldn’t have been supported — quite the contrary. He is clearly a dedicated and exemplary sportsman who has never let his country down. I’m just making the point that it’s possible to examine the funding for each of our athletes, and I think to conclude that we haven’t let them down either.

In the four years leading up to the Olympics Ireland invested around €6 million a year in the High Performance Programme. That includes cricket, golf, and other sports that are not involved in the Olympics yet, and it also includes the investment made in Paralympics.

But the added value comes from the coaching, the discipline, the ethos, and the commitment of the athlete. Throughout the Games there was loads of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Billy Walsh and Zaur Antia, the Georgian Irishman who serves as technical coach to the team, have brought an enormous additional dimension to Irish boxing.

NOT just in terms of technical skill, but by bringing an astonishing level of discipline and commitment. By building a world-class team, in other words, with a world-class ethos. These boxers and their managers supported each other through thick and thin, in the preparations for the Games and right throughout the event.

It seems quite astonishing that stories are swirling around to the effect that Billy Walsh has never been adequately or appropriately rewarded for his immensely professional work. Billy Walsh, Zaur Antia, and Peter Taylor need to be on solid long-term contracts, for the sake of Irish boxing and for the sake of Irish sport in general.

But apart from that it does seem to be the case that the same team spirit and ethos wasn’t built in other sports. Sure, the team was totally mutually supportive throughout the Games themselves, but the long haul of preparation wasn’t done as a team, but rather as a group of highly talented individuals.

Now is the time for a small group of people to sit down together and to try to figure out how to add all that sort of value to the efforts of the Irish in Rio. Unlike other years, there’s no need for recrimination. But there is need for determination. If I had my way (and I emphasise as a fan rather than an expert), I’d be looking to appoint a team captain right now, to lead the team for four years and to build the sense of shared commitment increment by increment.

I wouldn’t be looking much further than Sonia O’Sullivan, by the way, and I’d be ensuring that she had decent executive authority in the role. She’s a winner and a leader, and now is the time to start planning an even brighter future.


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