Rais­ing the bar to new heights

We’re fi­nally get­ting to grips with the con­cept of high per­for­mance — and it’s pay­ing div­i­dends

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - JOHN GREENE

FOR a few days in Au­gust 2004 the hits were com­ing hard. Ev­ery­one took aim. As the Olympics in Athens were draw­ing to a close, the Ir­ish team had fallen apart and ques­tions were be­ing asked. Ea­monn Cogh­lan said Ir­ish ath­let­ics was “a joke”; Nick O’Hare said our swim­mers would have to move abroad to have any chance of suc­cess; Pat Hickey said the “hor­rific” re­sults must lead to a re­think on sports fund­ing, and while he was at it he took a swipe at sail­ing; Jerry Kier­nan, on RTÉ, said the run­ner James Nolan was a “dilet­tante”, and Nolan, in re­ply, said Kier­nan was an “ass­hole”.

In this pa­per, Tommy Con­lon noted that “the dis­ap­point­ments were com­ing thick and fast”, adding that “ev­ery­where you looked Ir­ish com­peti­tors were col­laps­ing un­der the oc­ca­sion”.

Even the politi­cians got in­volved, as then sports min­is­ter John O’Donoghue found him­self un­der fire and try­ing to strad­dle both sides of the de­bate — shar­ing the na­tional mood of an­noy­ance while also de­fend­ing our high per­for­mance strat­egy.

Ir­ish sport, it seemed, had reached a nadir.

Cer­tainly our sport­ing land­scape was a bit of a bas­ket case. The gov­ern­ment was in­vest­ing money in sport but the high per­for­mance cul­ture ev­i­dent in so many other coun­tries was still only in its in­fancy here and ex­pec­ta­tions that a pot of money would yield in­stant re­sults were ut­terly un­re­al­is­tic.

Events in Athens made it clear that Ir­ish sport still had a sig­nif­i­cant jour­ney to travel. The prob­lem was that many of the or­gan­i­sa­tions charged with lead­ing sport into a sup­pos­edly bright new fu­ture were ter­ri­bly ill-equipped to do so. There was a lack of ex­per­tise, a lack of knowl­edge and a lack of di­rec­tion, and weighed down by old struc­tures and bad habits, they were ei­ther slow to em­brace new ways, or re­sis­tant to change al­to­gether.

Tal­ented ath­letes com­plain­ing about their gov­ern­ing body was a con­stant fea­ture of the Ir­ish Olympic ex­pe­ri­ence, while the sport­ing scene in gen­eral was at times crip­pled by feud­ing, power strug­gles and di­vi­sion at all lev­els. Oc­ca­sion­ally, an ath­lete of supreme abil­ity would some­how shirk off the bag­gage to ex­cel at a ma­jor cham­pi­onship but this only pa­pered over the cracks as we car­ried on re­gard­less. This, largely, was the story of Ir­ish sport on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

The high per­for­mance con­cept in Ire­land is new. It was in­tro­duced in the early noughties and we have been play­ing catch-up since. While well over €100m has been in­vested by the State, its de­vel­op­ment has been partly trial and er­ror — learn­ing to un­der­stand what works, or doesn’t work for us — and partly evo­lu­tion­ary as we strive to keep abreast of mod­ern ad­vance­ments and learn from other coun­tries.

Af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of a re­view of Ire­land’s per­for­mance in Athens, which es­sen­tially found that the coun­try was on the right road in terms of its am­bi­tion to have a prop­erly func­tion­ing high per­for­mance sys­tem, John O’Donoghue ad­dressed the is­sue: “We have in­vested sub­stan­tially in sport but we started be­hind oth­ers and it will take time to catch up,” he said in March 2005. “There must be a fo­cus on ju­nior and de­vel­op­ing ath­letes. That is the cor­rect way to go, but it does not pro­duce in­stant div­i­dends.”

Change has been slow, but it has been hap­pen­ing. We now in­sist on proper gov­er­nance in each or­gan­i­sa­tion; on more trans­parency around fund­ing; on more re­spon­si­bil­ity rest­ing with en­er­getic ex­ec­u­tive branches and less on clunky board struc­tures; and, on work­able high per­for­mance plans for each sport. None of this is head­line-grab­bing stuff, and there have been hic­cups along the road (think of the prob­lems which have be­set box­ing, for in­stance), but it is start­ing to have an im­pact.

O’Donoghue’s prediction that we were around 10 years be­hind coun­tries of com­par­a­tive size, like New Zealand, wasn’t too far off the mark. The seeds of change sown over 15 years ago are start­ing to bear fruit. We are half-way through an Olympic cy­cle — still two years out from Tokyo — and there’s a per­cep­ti­ble buzz around Ir­ish sport. What’s more, the pub­lic is tak­ing no­tice.

The per­for­mances this sum­mer of our ath­letes across a range of sports at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships, the women’s hockey team at the World Cup, our young ath­letes at the world un­der 20 cham­pi­onships, our young box­ers in var­i­ous cham­pi­onships and our Par­a­lympic ath­letes has sig­nalled a sig­nif­i­cant shift in our for­tunes. More and more, across a num­ber of sports, we are pro­duc­ing a new breed of ath­lete who ap­pears bet­ter equipped to deal with the pres­sures of com­pet­ing on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

As a case in point, take gym­nas­tics and Rhys McCle­naghan’s achieve­ment in win­ning Ire­land’s first medal in that sport at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships. We do not have a tra­di­tion in gym­nas­tics and yet here is a guy who blitzed his op­po­si­tion on the pom­mel horse. Leav­ing aside McCle­naghan’s ob­vi­ous tal­ent and de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed, the dif­fer­ence now is that he is sup­ported by Sport Ire­land fi­nan­cially and his gov­ern­ing body, Gy­mas­tics Ire­land, is a shin­ing ex­am­ple of the brave new world of Ir­ish sport. It is a dy­namic as­so­ci­a­tion, led by CEO Ciaran Gal­lagher, who not only has in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence but an en­ergy and vi­sion to grow the sport. This has been done pa­tiently from the bot­tom up, in­creas­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion rates to the point that many clubs have be­come over-sub­scribed. Gy­mas­tics has been talked about for some time now as a com­ing sport, and McCle­naghan more than proved this to be the case.

When you look at the sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions which have to­tally re­built them­selves and em­braced the high per­for­mance cul­ture, learn­ing from other as­so­ci­a­tions and also from other coun­tries, a clear pic­ture of the state of Ir­ish sport be­gins to emerge. Gym­nas­tics is to the fore­front; so too are Par­a­lympics Ire­land, Swim Ire­land, Cricket Ire­land, the Ir­ish Sail­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, and, in­creas­ingly, the sports of row­ing, ath­let­ics and box­ing. Th­ese are show­ing what can be achieved when you get your house in or­der. We are also per­form­ing well at mod­ern pen­tathlon, and show­ing im­prove­ment in other sports like basketball and bad­minton.

One thing all of th­ese sports have in com­mon is that they have worked hard to make their na­tional gov­ern­ing body fit for pur­pose in the first in­stance, and then in iden­ti­fy­ing and de­vel­op­ing young tal­ent. A con­stant crit­i­cism of the Ir­ish sys­tem is that we do not have enough coaches to nur­ture that tal­ent and take us to the next level. This is be­ing ad­dressed, as re­cent re­sults have shown, but you can never have enough good coaches with the skillset needed to help max­imise our tal­ent base.

Then there is the Na­tional Sports Cam­pus. It’s still find­ing its feet, but it is al­ready a suc­cess. As more and more sports mi­grate there it should be­come a fer­tile breed­ing ground for a high per­for­mance cul­ture, with ath­letes from a va­ri­ety of sports mix­ing and shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences. The fa­cil­i­ties and the sup­port sys­tems are be­ing put in place too.

The idea that our small pop­u­la­tion al­lied to the dom­i­nance of Gaelic games was hold­ing us back in in­ter­na­tional sport has been ex­posed as some­thing of a self-de­cep­tion. We were hold­ing our­selves back.

We still have a way to travel, but at least we have reached the foothills — at least we are get­ting bet­ter all the time. The suc­cesses of the last few months have raised the bar again. They have also raised the lev­els of ex­pec­ta­tion and cre­ated a sense that there is more to come, up to and in­clud­ing Tokyo. We can rea­son­ably ex­pect to see Ir­ish ath­letes and Ir­ish teams com­pet­ing more reg­u­larly at the busi­ness end of cham­pi­onships. We may or may not be cel­e­brat­ing more medals in 2020, but what­ever hap­pens we are un­likely to see a re­peat of Athens and the bad old days.

You can never have enough good coaches with the full skillset needed

Rhys McCle­naghan’s gold medal at the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships was a break­through mo­ment for Ir­ish gym­nas­tics

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