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Could Ireland build an Olympic medals powerhouse?

In the latest episode of Ireland 2029, we look at what the country needs to do to bring more medals home.

Rhasidat Adeleke, Sommer Lecky, Patience Jumbo-Gula, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville and Molly Scott Ireland's 4x100m relay silver medallists from last summer's World U20 Championships. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

A LITTLE OVER a year ago, a lecture hall full of Irish sports administrators listened intently as Peter Miskimmin, the chief executive of Sport New Zealand, delivered a keynote address at a conference titled: ‘The New Zealand Way. Grassroots to Greats. What Can Ireland Learn?’

Miskimmin, a former Olympian, wasn’t in Dublin by chance that week. As the brains trust behind New Zealand’s remarkable period of success in Olympic and Paralympic sport, his visit demanded attention and ears.

While the comparisons between Ireland and New Zealand as two nations are obvious, the Kiwis are now streets ahead of Ireland in a sporting context, having overhauled their high-performance funding model and handsomely reaped the rewards at an elite level.

Since the 2000 Olympics, New Zealand — a nation with an almost identical population to Ireland — has won 50 medals in both the summer and winter Games, achieving podium success across a range of different sports, compared to the 12 medals Irish athletes have brought home.

In Rio, Ireland’s two medals came courtesy of Annalise Murphy in sailing and the O’Donovan brothers in rowing, finishing 62th on the overall medals table, while the Kiwis, in 19th, collected 18 medals across nine sports.

More impressive is the rate of growth New Zealand has experienced in the last four Olympic cycles, going from four medals in Sydney to the 18 in Rio and their target for Tokyo will be even higher than that.

How have they done it? Miskimmin has led the way in making brave changes, going against the grain and, put simply, adapting to have a better chance of survival in the world of modern sport.

Sport NZ recognised the need to keep moving forward, rather than simply accepting the status quo, and became ruthless in their decision-making process, as they looked to focus on sports which carried potential rather than spreading its resources across the board.

In other words, the sports that weren’t pulling their weight at an Olympic level, whether that was through performance or the structures it had in place, had their funding terminated. It was controversial at the time, but now other countries are studying the Kiwi model, including Ireland, hence Miskimmin’s visit to these shores last summer. 

What can Ireland learn from New Zealand? 

But could we follow a similar strategy and turn Ireland into an Olympic powerhouse? 

“If you look at our medal count during the recent Games, it is rather inconsistent and we need to convert that into greater consistency,” Peter Sherrard, the chief executive of the Olympic Federation of Ireland, tells the latest episode of Ireland 2029

“What we need to do is look at what other peer countries are doing, so we’ve looked at Denmark, we’ve looked at New Zealand and we’ve looked at the Netherlands, for example. A decade ago, their medal tallies were fairly similar and fairly inconsistent.

“We need to look at the participation, the structures behind it, the coaching structures, the pathways for athletes to reach those elite levels. The better prepared they are to compete at the very peak, and the very pinnacle would be the Olympics.”

Paul and Gary O'Donovan celebrate winning a silver medal Paul and Gary O'Donovan won rowing silver in Rio. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

For Sherrard, who has fronted the OFI’s revival in this cycle after its reputation and image was damaged considerably by non-sporting events in Rio, the key to converting top-10 finishes into podium places is putting the athletes first in everything they do.

Both Sherrard and OFI President Sarah Keane have put the athletes at the forefront of their agenda and already they are seeing tangible results on the track, in the pool and across a wide range of sports.

Take last year for example. Ireland claimed 77 medals across both senior and junior World and European competition in 2018, and perhaps most encouraging is the abundance of talent now coming through the system, particularly in athletics.

Ireland’s 4x100m relay team — Ciara Neville, Patience Jumbo Gula, Rhasidat Adeleke, Molly Scott and Gina Akpe Moses — won a sensational silver at the World U20 Championships last July, while Sarah Healy’s potential on the track knows no bounds.

Only last month, Adeleke won a sprint double at the European Youth Olympics, further underlining her prodigious talent and providing exciting evidence of how the system is working.

Tokyo 2020

“There is a wide range of activities that the public may not necessarily be aware of,” Sherrard continues, referring to the financial support the OFI is providing to various national governing bodies in preparation for Tokyo 2020.

As part of a renewed investment in their athletes, the OFI launched a scholarship scheme to help assist some of Ireland’s brightest young prospects in their bid to qualify for Tokyo: golfer Leona Maguire, swimmer Mona McSharry and badminton star Nhat Nguyen are among those on the scheme. 

“It’s adding to the support that is already provided, the majority of which comes through Sport Ireland,” Sherrard explains. “But it’s by working together within the system that we can improve Ireland’s Olympic results.

The government has just committed to increasing funding for high-performance sport from €11 million per annum to €33 million over the next decade. That will certainly assist our national governing bodies to help prepare our athletes for the highest level.

“We also have worked with sports on a more straightforward basis so athletes are experiencing Tokyo a year in advance. For example, the 4x100m relay team that competed in Yokohama [in May], we paid for Athletics Ireland to bring that team out to the pre-Games camp in Fukuroi City so the athletes themselves could experience that environment a year in advance.

“And that’s immensely beneficial, not just to the athletes themselves, but also for us so we can learn and perfect things from a performance perspective.” 

While the Sport Ireland campus in Abbotstown has developed into a world-class training facility for Ireland’s Olympic hopefuls and the levels of funding have improved in recent years, there is one thing that needs to be put in place for us to get to the next level, according to sprinter Brian Gregan.

“Our support structures have grown massively but the one thing we’re missing and maybe not in the other sports but definitely athletics, is professional coaches,” he tells Ireland 2029

Peter Sherrard Olympic Federation of Ireland CEO Peter Sherrard. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We have no professional coaches in athletics whatsoever. My coach, John Shields, is a retired teacher and he does it for the love of it. He works the hours of a professional coach, but doesn’t get paid for it.

The facilities have come on but the next step is to bring in the coaching. You see now in Swim Ireland, every performance is record, record, record and part of that is that they all now train under one coach and they’re reaping the rewards of having that professional coach. It’s really good to see that a small team like that are starting to excel.

Gregan is preparing to launch his bid for Olympic qualification having endured an injury-plagued couple of years, and the 29-year-old is full of praise for the Sport Ireland ‘carding’ system, which for the first time is now a two-year scheme, and helps support his journey. 

High-performance athletes are separated into different categories depending on their results on the world stage and potential for success in that calendar year: Podium [€40,000 per annum], World Class [€20,000 or €16,000] and International [€12,000].

In total, Sport Ireland will distribute €1.9 million in funding to high-performance athletes across a wide range of sports this year, which is in contrast to New Zealand’s approach of streamlining funding into half a dozen ‘strong’ sports. 

Importance of grassroots sport 

Mary O’Connor, the chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sport, a representative organisation for the national governing bodies, says it’s important to strike the right balance between high-performance funding and support for grassroots sport and not prioritise one over the other.

“My own opinion would be to get high-performance athletes, they have to start somewhere, and that’s at grassroots with volunteer coaches, volunteer administrators,” O’Connor, a 16-time All-Ireland camogie and ladies football winner with Cork, says.

For the most part, national governing bodies are striking the correct balance. All sport exists first and foremost at a grassroots level and that’s how we succeed in getting our athletes to come along through the pathway the national governing body provides.

With Sherrard and Keane at the helm of the Olympic Federation of Ireland, Sport Ireland constantly improving their facilities and services, and O’Connor working closely with the national governing bodies, there has never been a better time for Irish athletes to emerge and thrive. 

The performances from those wearing green singlets or with the tri-colour on their chest in this Olympic cycle has been most encouraging and while it would be misguided to say Ireland can become an Olympic powerhouse in the years to come, there are certainly reasons to be optimistic.

For a nation of our size and population, competing with the likes of Great Britain, USA, Australia and China on the medal table every four years is a big ask, yet the system put in place by a number of key organisations and stakeholders has created that environment for athletes to be at their very best.

“We really want to ensure we’re on an upward trajectory,” Sherrard adds.

“I think that’s really important, and that is happening when you look at the junior and senior medals at World and European level last year. If you compare that to a decade ago, it’s almost unrecognisable so we are doing things correctly and Sport Ireland, to their credit, are doing a lot of things correctly in terms of putting the facilities in place and making sure the performance environment is there.

“The men and women who represent us from all around the country, from all different walks of life, effectively put their lives completely on hold for that really pure ideal of competing to be the best of 7.5 billion people on the planet. It’s an incredible sacrifice and it’s something we do owe them as a country to support them properly in their Olympic endeavour.”

You can listen to the ninth episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future in full below:


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

 

Is focusing funding on particular sports a good idea for Ireland?

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Ryan Bailey

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