Between 1936 and 2004, Great Britain won 73 Olympic gold medals. In the 3 Olympic Games since, they've won 75. Their astonishing level of success has not come by accident. What can Ireland and an OCI in utter disarray learn from this extraordinary turnaround? Ryan Conroy is an Irish PE teacher living and working in the UK. He has seen years of British planning come to fruition right under his nose, and says the Irish government and sporting bodies must take note.
As an array of colour and brightness signalled the end of another international spectacle, it was hard not to be filled with hope and excitement for the future of athletics. The television commentators spoke about a record medal haul and how title defences and the emergence of unlikely heroes would secure participant interest and funding for years to come.
As head of PE in a Manchester school I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about implications this might have for my own students. However, as the last firework fizzled out over the Rio sky I was succumbed to jealousy.
In the build up to the Olympics, conversations with friends and colleagues have been about where medals might be won and who might break a world record. Unfortunately, for a person whose world revolves around sport, I found myself redundant in these conversations.
You see, these were British people speaking about their team and their hopes for the games.
As a patriotic Irishman, brought up in a republican influenced environment, it goes against all my principles to cheer on 'the forces of the crown' but what other choice is there? I find sport addictive, but it's only when I have a team or a person to cheer on, do I really get hypnotised by its magic. And so, as Mo Farah produced a final burst of speed to claim another gold for GB, I found myself overcome with joy. Was I subconsciously borrowing a Union Jack?
For too long Irish participation in Olympic Games has simply been to make up numbers. Yes there has been ‘once in a generation individuals’ who break the mould and achieve beyond their vision of capability, but why is there no consistency? How can our next door neighbours beat us 67 – 2 in medals won without there being an inquiry? (Ed Note: In terms of population, this represents a better than 2-1 medal haul for Team GB over Ireland) For a country that is proud of its international reputation, these Olympics have once again shown the need for reformation in the OCI.
I work and teach in the UK, not initially by choice, but by necessity. Team GB performed so well in Rio because each year the British government allocates at least £8,000 to each primary school for sport. This money must be spent on sport and it is a requirement for school moderators to produce an evidence file detailing how this money has been spent and the impact it has had on various groups.
In addition to the aforementioned money, additional funding is provided for weekly (assessed) swimming lessons. Curriculum time is made available to introduce new sports like taekwondo or take children on taster sessions to a velodrome. There is also a pot to advance gifted and talented children who might excel in a sport that a primary school cannot develop.
Compare that to Ireland.
When I was growing up in Dundalk, you were lucky to get a GAA session once a week from somebody on a FÁS course. Having spoken to friends of mine who teach PE at home, they informed me that the Irish government do not ring-fence any money for PE. Money does get allocated in relation to the number of pupils enrolled, but spending is very much at the discretion of the principal.
After watching the tears of Katie Taylor and the injustice of Michael Conlan’s defeat, I hope that it made people at home’s blood boil as much as it did mine. Some of our performances in Rio were extraordinary. We made finals and top 10s where we wouldn't usually factor. But the medals table tells the true story. Ireland are not punching their weight at the Olympics.
It is time to get back to the drawing board and develop a strategic plan for Irish sport, a plan that looks beyond Tokyo 2020. A plan that involves investment in school sport from an early age, the removal a corrupt hierarchy and the introduction of a winning mentality.
2016 needs to be remembered in Sport Ireland as the year we woke up and did something.
No more excuses.