Home Features MacKenna On Monday: Populism & Piggy-Backing Won’t See Irish Sport Succeed

MacKenna On Monday: Populism & Piggy-Backing Won’t See Irish Sport Succeed

You can tell Shane Ross doesn’t know a whole lot about our sporting history.

Last Monday, when the women’s hockey team returned home to a wonderful welcome after an amazing achievement, the Minister for Sport was of course front and centre in what amounted to a photo opportunity. He even hailed their trip to a World Cup final as a “Ronnie Delany moment”.

So how about a quick lesson. Delany won gold at the Melbourne Olympics, but retired injured in 1962 and came home from his career broke having funded his own way to glory. As for his nation, we haven’t won a track and field gold at the Games since, and have only been atop podiums there twice in the 62 years since he was, excluding those instances that come with a troubling asterisk.

If Ross was deliberately black in his humour, we take it back and apologise. We doubt it though for today he’s due to announce where an additional €1.5m of sports funding will go, after it became available due to money received from the aviation authority. Granted, he has already admitted a sizable chunk will be for hockey in a decision off his own back, when their reward was already in-build for 2019 due to its new place in the carding scheme which pays based on performances.

On the surface, it seems fine, but as always with political posturing, there’s more than meets the eye. In Ireland we under-fund sport, so you might ask how extra cash can be in any way bad.

 

But the issue is that when money is so scarce, you then need to use it wisely and not flippantly. It’s why Sport Ireland are there and they are the experts, thus to bypass them because of an in-the-moment public relations benefit via public funding is reprehensible. Sport Ireland didn’t know this was coming, but now they’ll be forced to reverse engineer when that’s not how any proper business model should work. You don’t pay for a house and then ask if you might go and see it.

Hockey Ireland may put the money to wise use, but don’t know as it’s been promised to them without planning, as Ross said it was a sudden award based on a surprise journey in the World Cup. Therefore there simply hasn’t been the time for them and Sport Ireland to draw up detailed ideas around needs and goals and implementation and performance in just a week. To do that properly would take a long time due to consultation required with a stream of stakeholders.

Besides, with finite resources across all sport, those best-placed need to see the vision of national governing bodies around participation increases at the bottom and medals at the top, and it’s they that then apply what’s best for the most. Here though is a retrospective reward for achieving in spite of the system, rather than prospective funding allowing achievement due to the system. Indeed Ross has even talked about this investment being about the Olympics in terms of hockey, but we are over half-way through this cycle and with under two years to Tokyo, you cannot maximise it’s effect as it’s too late. Meanwhile, it’s too soon for 2024. Spent now because it can be in a Celtic Tiger-style move with no foresight, at least some of the value will thus be squandered.

For that, Hockey Ireland can take some blame too. No sooner were the women’s squad back than the narrative changed from what they did to what the governing body could get. How many times since have you heard about a World Cup silver, and how much have you heard about funding? There was a time and a place for the latter discussion and it wasn’t at the expense of the former.

What also helped Hockey Ireland’s position was the misinformation that stoked the hashtag-style fire and anger. Word got out that the players had paid their own way to the World Cup and the governing body did nothing to quell this as it suited their agenda around cashing in to the full. They never corrected such wrongs doing the rounds by pointing to the €900,000 from Sport Ireland in 2018, €625,000 of it for high-performance sport, on top of additional help from Sport NI.

What did, however, start the whispers was an interview Chloe Watkins did with The42 in 2017 where she mentioned the €550 player levy, and the under-21 and schools teams that also paid to play for Ireland. That is hugely significant for, when it comes to funding national bodies, you don’t throw good money after bad, and that involves discovering if the initial payment was bad.

That levy Watkin’s alluded to came at a time when €260,000 of taxpayer’s money was allocated to help Hockey Ireland grow the game, where an additional €40,000 was made available for women in the sport, and where €530,000 was given for high performance. So where did that all go?

There are those who will point out that these figures aren’t much, and they do have a point in terms of nominal numbers, but relatively only boxing, sailing and athletics as individual sports received more for high performance, and only gymnastics, swimming and basketball received more for women. If Hockey Ireland couldn’t take care entirely of those that ought to be most valuable first, why trust them with more funding now? In fact with the men’s World Cup in December, and with theirs a sport that has a place in wealthier communities although far from exclusively, they couldn’t even hold onto coach Craig Fulton as he quit and pointed in part to underfunded players.

Sure, maybe more could have gone their way from Sport Ireland, although at a cost to what other governing bodies? But wouldn’t it be nice if hockey looked in the mirror and took ownership. Then again why would they in a sporting system headed by a minister who this week showed you can easily get rewarded for, at best, mediocre governance, if the rewards are also there for him.

In a way, in Irish sport, the funding masks deeper problems. Dynamics are complicated yet this disguises a multitude of other issues. As an example, there is never enough, but handouts have shown up other sports as lazy, and boxing sums this up better than any. After a decade of some of the most recognisable and marketable names and faces coming from the sweet science, rather than using them to generate income privately, the begging bowl was and is repeatedly produced.

Such bad practice tends to travel to the point that experts and logic will tell you that the more independent a sport strives and manages to be, the better it works. That’s because it’s much easier to court controversy, point fingers and get people mad, than to fix your own shortcomings.

John Foley of Athletics Ireland may not be universally popular but they are increasing membership levies a small amount, and have grown that membership number to more than 60,000, generating funds to reinvest. Warren Deutrom, the Cricket Ireland chief executive, saw his organisation receive far less than hockey yet not only does his top team not have to pay their own way, they are a fully professional unit. Even the IRFU were cautious enough around sevens not to throw their far greater resources at that version of the game until it made sense from a business perspective.

But what has hockey done on its own? And what will it now do, as they’ve come across a little like Mr Burns being carried on a stretcher during his time in World War II?

“Haven’t you won the war yet?

“Hey, you said you was dead.”

“Yes. Dead tired. But I’m quite refreshed now. Thank you.”

In this year’s NGO funding category, hockey was only 15th and tellingly those figures come about via participation. It clearly has much work to do as there is potential and maybe this is a start. But victories alone don’t grow a game, rather the methods and methodology behind those victories. Sure, a kid watching those women might want to take up the game but what keeps them coming back is the chance to be like those women. This is where it gets uncomfortable and unacceptable.

Sports funding should be mostly if not entirely around sports where access to the top end is equal for all and not dependent on your place in society. Talent and effort rather than opportunity based on class and money should be our drivers of success, and that still isn’t the case in hockey today.

They aren’t alone and even what sailing takes from the public purse jars badly. How many kids ever showed up to PE and said ‘Sorry sir, I forgot my boat’? And in that sense are we happy to follow the British model of targeting ‘easy’ medals due to less competition as most cannot afford to play, never mind compete? Or is funding about access as per the France model of more for the masses?

This hockey funding would again suggest we’ve made our call.

Sure many of their clubs up and down the country do great work but the chances of those who play for them getting access to high-performance dividends are far less than those who make it to and through private school. That’s because hockey still follows the rugby system, where the sports’ centres of excellence are institutions out of the reach of most. This year’s All Ireland girls’ finals involved a round-robin with Loreto Foxrock, Mount Mercy, Rainey Endowed, Salerno and Kilkenny College who, while now public, still ask for a special contribution from parents for children’s sport.

Granted, these days to try and suggest any of this will involve being called out by those who don’t care enough to listen as it’s either too complicated or doesn’t suit their bias. On Today FM’s The Last Word last week as this all unfolded, the first text in to the argument said the tell-tale word.

“Begrudger.”

But how is it begrudging as it’s separate from the success of the women, so it cannot be that. Therefore is it begrudging elitism? Is it begrudging incompetence? Is it begrudging waste?

What we want are more achievements in our sport like those of the hockey team and to give more the best chance of doing that. But populism and piggy-backing make that less likely as hockey have been given fish, rather than being taught how to and told to go and fish.

From that you can tell Shane Ross doesn’t know a lot about our sporting history. Or about sport.

About Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna
One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.