When the London Olympics were awarded there was much celebration among the British sporting fraternity. They told us that the award of the games would do wonders for sport across the four ‘home nations’ – the facilities developed as a result of the games would provide a legacy for future generation of sportsmen and women.
Aspirations would be raised – there would be role models in every area – aspiring to be Olympians. What nonsense.
The reality of Olympic sport as we know is a far cry from De Coubertin’s original Olympic spirit. He famously said: “Sport is part of every man and woman’s heritage and its absence can never be compensated for.”
In fact, the games are tainted irrevocably by doping and are bloated with commercialism. Each four year cycle is a celebration of rampant capitalism as much as a festival of sport. Fair enough, that is the world in which we live.
What of the impact on local sport in the North of Ireland of the award of the Olympic Games to London in 2012 and what that means for sport at grassroots level as opposed to the hype and spin coming from Lord Coe et al.
Clubs across the North, in all sports, rely upon Sport NI – formerly the Sports Council – for infrastructural funding supplemented by their own volunteer fundraising.
This money generated through the Sports Council Lottery Fund is administered on a competitive basis – clubs complete extensive paperwork making their case as best they can. This includes detail on levels of participation of males, females able-bodied and disabled athletes. It also required information on provision by the club or organisation across the ‘two communities’ and other en vogue elements such as commitment to targeting social need.
This funding is invaluable – Sports Council Lottery funding provided through their Building for Sport programme has allowed the development of some first class facilities in communities across the North. It helps local grassroots sport in a basic but practical and fundamental way and allows the army of volunteer coaches, players and administrators to pursue their chosen sport in good quality facilities. These people are Olympian in their ideals and approach in the true sense of the word.
To quote the founder of the modern Olympic movement: “The important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete.” And again: “Sport must be the heritage of all men and of all social classes.”
Sport NI revealed in 2006 that the current round of funding – closing date last January – would be the last for a period of time whilst they reviewed the funding mechanism. An army of volunteer organizations hurried to complete their submissions on time. To make a long story short, these submissions were considered and although many had merit as you would expect – reflective as they were of the enthusiasm and passion engendered by local sports activists – ALL, I repeat ALL bids were not funded because the money has been redirected for London 2012.
Subsequently a number of these bids were flagged through based on those organisations that were in a state of readiness and could complete large scale capital development within one calendar year. It is a testimony to the enterprising spirit of local sport that many groups did just that and stepped up to the plate, delivering, or over-delivering.
Pause to consider the implication of that outcome. The games which were supposed to provide infrastructure and a legacy had the exact opposite and detrimental effect on local sport. Rather than get new funding and facilities, grassroots sport is being denied the one existing infrastructural support programme that exists. The legacy of the games is more likely disillusionment and despair at the redirection of funds back across the Irish sea to an Olympics that frankly few people here will benefit from.
As part of the Olympic bid some funding is being developed for some key sports for example development of elite facilities for rowing, fencing or whatever. These are low participation sports.
The high participation sports like rugby, soccer, gaelic games and hockey which are subsidized by the efforts of amateurs will be hit. The fact is that over the years of the Troubles, sports teams were one of the means whereby young people were kept interested in some sort of community spirit and kept away from the anti-social activities which many of their peers fell into.
For these people, having subsidized sport and written a cheque for investment in the future through their dedication and commitment – to paraphrase Martin Luther King – government has returned the promissory note literally marked insufficient funds.
At this juncture in our history, when diabetes, obesity and heart disease are threats to society due to increasing sedentary lifestyles amongst our young people, our political representatives should be saying:
“Sport is a core value for. We will invest in it – we will make our 1.5 million people the healthiest in Europe by giving them the opportunities to access sport. We will invest more in this than any other country because having been bruised and battered for thirty years it is time to rehabilitate this society through a commitment for sport.”
There is a window of opportunity now, to say we wish to draw a line in the sand. It could be the Assembly’s ‘Ninety-nine’ call or whatever you want to call it – to borrow from the great Ulster rugby player Willie John McBride.
Rather than accept the mediocrity of having our funding withdrawn and compartmentalized on spurious grounds, I believe the sports organizations should come together in an organized way and say we will not accept having this funding withdrawn and furthermore we will not stop there – we want a commitment from the Assembly that they will make sport and health and wellness a real priority. Not through words but through practical support.
It requires an intelligent and structured approach, targeted at the right people. What is possible is a planned campaign of lobbying, engaging sport and stakeholders alike.
Roy Keane said when he left Saipan and an Ireland team that was accepting of mediocrity “Dead fish go with the flow.” That is the choice.