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'It's the peak, the pinnacle': What's stopping Ireland from taking home more Olympic medals?

How can we boost Ireland’s number of podium finishes? We find out more on Ireland 2029.

Rowers Paul and Gary O'Donovan celebrate after their silver medal win at Rio 2016.
Rowers Paul and Gary O'Donovan celebrate after their silver medal win at Rio 2016.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

A LOT CAN happen in 10 years. Where is Ireland going, and what will life be like here in the year 2029? Welcome to Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future, a podcast series from TheJournal.ie.

Over 10 episodes, we’re partnering with Volkswagen to bring you 10 big ideas that could change Ireland for the better. Each week, we talk to someone about an idea they truly believe could work, and find out whether it’s practical, or whether it’s a non-runner.

In the ninth episode of Ireland 2029, we ask: Could Ireland build an Olympic medals powerhouse?

At the Rio Olympics in 2016, the Irish team came home with two medals – one from Annalise Murphy in sailing, and one from the O’Donovan brothers in rowing.

While any podium finish is to be celebrated, our 2016 medal count was certainly below the expectations of athletes, coaches and governing bodies around the country.

Speaking on the latest episode of Ireland 2029, Olympic Federation of Ireland CEO Peter Sherrard acknowledges that Ireland’s Olympic records have been somewhat unsteady down the years:

“You might have Rio, for example, where we had 16 top-10 finishes versus 14 in London [2012], yet in Rio there were two podium finishes compared to our record six in London,” he explains.

If you look at our medal count during the recent Games, it is rather inconsistent and we need to convert that into greater consistency. We need to look at the participation, the structures behind it, the coaching structures, the pathways for athletes to reach those elite levels … the very peak, the very pinnacle would be the Olympics.

Our country’s size relative to larger Olympic greats like the UK and the US is an obvious retaliation to the medal count question – but even when you compare Ireland to countries with similar population numbers, there’s a lot left lacking.

The New Zealand Olympic squad, for example, brought home 18 medals from Rio – and that’s from a country with a population of about 4.7 million, just like Ireland.

But go back 15 or 20 years, and the Kiwis had a record that was as inconsistent as ours, with four medals at Sydney 2000, and five at Athens 2004. New Zealand’s growth has been the result of “bold and radical” decisions, as The42.ie’s Ryan Bailey put it in the latest episode of Ireland 2029.

They streamlined funding into certain sports … Some smaller federations had their funding completely cut – we’re not just talking about reduced, we’re talking completely cut at a high performance level. That’s a dangerous tactic, but they invested heavily in around half a dozen sports.

While a controversial move like cutting funding from smaller sports might not go down well in Ireland, New Zealand’s Olympic performance certainly paints a picture of the potential gains to be made from a more focused approach to funding – one that’s based on winning, not just on participation. 

So could Ireland see its medal count skyrocket in time for Los Angeles 2028 and beyond – or are we miles away from the podium finish? Tune into the ninth episode of Ireland 2029: Shaping Our Future, to hear how close we are to going for gold:

Full list of providers here 


Source: Ireland 2029/SoundCloud

Ireland 2029 is a podcast from TheJournal.ie, in partnership with Volkswagen. This episode was put together by presenter Rónán Duffy, producer Ryan Bailey, series producer Órla Ryan, and executive producer Christine Bohan. Editing by Andrew Roberts. With thanks to Paula Lyne and our contributors.

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