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Ireland overview ahead of London 2012

May 2011…by Joe Finegan

For a small nation on the global scale, Ireland’s sports teams and athletes have always been lauded for performing remarkably well. Our soccer teams have been the source of much joy and high expectation for over 20 years since that first appearance at a major finals in 1988. Our individual athletes have performed admirably too, with this country having produced some fantastic competitors throughout the years on the world stage.

However, the production of top-class athletes has been sporadic. Looks at the facts: After Ron Delaney’s gold medal in the 1500 metres at Melbourne in 1956, Ireland did not win another gold until Michael Carruth in 1992. Ireland landed no medals at all at the Olympic Games of 1968, 1972, and 1976. Seoul in 1988 returned no medals either, either did Athens in 2004. After Atlanta in 1996, when Michelle Smith delivered a personal haul of four golds and one bronze, just one silver medal at Sydney in 2000 followed (Sonia O’Sullivan – 5000m).

On the face of it, the Beijing Games three years ago were very successful with three boxing medals coming home – Kenneth Egan, Darren Sutherland and Paddy Barnes.

Ireland’s medal haul has been sporadic and in waves. But plans, systems and directives have been in place for the guts of 10 years, and now results are being seen.

Since the Irish Sports Council (ISC) implemented their high performance directives, success at an elite level has increased three-fold. Ireland are seeing the results trickle in after years of isolated success. In 2006, sports supported and funded by the ISC yielded nine medals at a European and World level. The amount invested that year was €9 million. In 2010, for an extra €1 million invested, our athletes brought home 31 medals from competitions all over the world.

Finbarr Kirwan was appointed director of the high performance unit at the ISC in 2003. Under his guidance, sport in Ireland has achieved unprecedented success, though he is too modest to accept any plaudits. He is a lover of sports, with breathtaking knowledge instantly available at the fore of his brain relating to all of Ireland’s elite athletes past and present, their coaches, their records and their training, and one gets the impression he loves his job.

An international schoolboy runner for Ireland over 800 and 1500m, Finbarr returned from studying and working in the USA in 2003 with his wife to occupy his role at the ISC. He reports directly to ISC chief executive and Olympic marathon silver medalist John Treacy on how his unit is performing, and what funding will be required in the future.

Targets are constantly being set by Finbarr’s unit, top-class coaches are constantly being sought and appointed, and through intricate and methodical planning, medal are constantly being won.

“I suppose our narrative in the past would have been that we’re [Ireland] not very good at Olympic sport. And showing up is the thing, but the reality is different,” says Finbarr.

“Following Athens in 2004, there was a review of our performances there and we set long-term targets at Olympic and Parolympic level for Irish athletes where we feel if we invest X amount, we should be getting X output.

“And the target we set was nine finalists and three medals at the next Olympics, and 12 to15 finalists and four to five medals at Parolympics.

“In Beijing in 2008 we hit the nine finalists and three medals, albeit they were all in one sport [boxing] but nonetheless that was the target we set, and we hit our target.

“And we continue on in that vein, setting targets and hopefully delivering against those targets. What we’ve shown is that if we put the right structures in place, we can compete at the highest level.
“That narrative about going to the Olympics, and it being all about representing your country – that has absolute merit – but when we as a country send athletes to the Olympics, we want them to compete at the highest level to the best of their talent.

“The other thing we wanted to do was to put structures in place in Ireland. Historically, if you were a talented athlete in Ireland, you had to leave to go to the US or Britain to develop your talent, like Eamon Coughlan or John Treacy, or Sonia O’Sullivan, or Ronnie Delaney. We’re putting the structures in place so athletes have the choice – you can stay or go away. Swimming is great example. A swimmer like Grainne Murphy, who medalled at the Europeans last year and is ranked top 10 in the world at two distances, chooses to stay in Ireland and work at the performance centre in Limerick. She has a very good coach, a very good performance director, and gets podium funding, so everything that Grainne needs is here in the country. She has no reason to leave or to train in America or anywhere else. She chooses to stay because the structures and facilities are here for her.

“So you’ve got that intersection of coaching, facilities and money – that’s the trifecta you need. At a senior level, those dividends are paying off.”

Just like any athlete who is going to a championship, preparation is key. The administration of sport at a national level is no different. Sport is being treated like an engine that must be finely tuned, well-oiled, and all components working in tandem with each other. Like most things, it all come down to money, and funding of sport is the responsibility of the ISC.

“What we’re trying to do, certainly on the high performance side, is to make the funding a competitive process,” explains Finbarr. “We’re trying to say that the best plans and proposals from various sports’ governing bodies will get the best investment from the council. So we’re treating them almost like business proposals. They tell us this is the competition path that they have in place, and these are the athletes, these are the coaches, and these are the services that we’re going to need, and this is what it is going to cost. And for all of that investment, this is what you’re going to get: x number of finalist, y number of medalists.

“And the planning process that we have in place now allows us to make that assessment, and rather than putting your finger up to the wind and seeing on what your gut is telling you, we have something concrete to go on.

“Internally, the high performance committee was established after the Beijing Olympics. That committee is chaired by Eamon Coughlan, John Treacy sits on it, Ginny Elliott [four Olympic equestrian medals for Great Britain), Peter Banks [Swim Ireland’s High Performance director], Stephen Martin [Chief Executive of the Olympic Council of Ireland and two-time Olympic hockey medalist for Great Britain].

“So what we have is a group of like-minded people who are tasked with overseeing high performances directives in Ireland. They have an important role in actually proofing what we’re doing, and that the high performance unit in the Institute of Sport and the people who are tasked with delivering high performance are doing it in a way that is good for the athlete and good for the sport.

“It’s my job to report into that committee, so every two month, as you can imagine, it’s a very challenging environment but it’s good and it’s what we need. Everyone around that table is committed to doing what’s best for the athletes with the money that we have available. It’s competitive – there are some ‘Type A’ personalities as you can imagine – but it’s a good group.”

Swimming is one sport which has been developed and evolved. Peter Banks, who sits on the High Performance committee, is the high performance director for Swim Ireland. Banks was hired in 2009 after he coached multiple Olympic medalists in the US where he ran a major university program. He consults with Finbarr and the high Performance unit in the ISC to plan their delivery of a high performance strategy within swimming.

There are four 50m swimming pools in Ireland at their disposal. From a high performance standpoint, the centre at the Limerick Institute of Sport is run by Ronald Claes. Paul Donovan is the head coach at The National Aquatic Centre in Dublin, and Andrew Reid heads up the team at the Bangor high performance centre. Banks oversees everything.

“If you’re a budding high performance swimmer in Ireland, you have the choice,” Finbarr reiterates. “The narrative of ‘we don’t have the facilities’ is over. If you’re a high performance swimmer, you have the choice of high performance centres and you’ve the choice of great coaches. Access to pools is no longer the issue.”

But having the centres is one thing, do we have the swimmers to fill them, and do we have the coaches to train them?

“We could have 200 high performance centre,” Finbarr illustrates, “but you need the coaches, you need the people, you need the swimmers, and you need the service provision.

“Coaching is everything really, well, naturally you don’t do anything without the natural ability, and the desire. The absolute core, most fundamental element of all of this is that you have an athlete with outstanding natural ability and exceptional drive. Then you start to layer on the coaching, and then you layer on the facilities, then you layer on the service provision, and then layer on the money. And then you start layering on the international competition.

“There are also natural performance limiters in athletics like vo2 max, and if you don’t have it, you don’t have it.

“Look at Kenneth Egan; you can teach Kenneth how to throw a left hook but you can’t teach him how to go into a ring against a Chinese guy with 30,000 Chinese people shouting their heads off in an Olympic final in their own country. It takes something more than bottle to step into that kind of arena and compete like Kenneth Egan does at the highest level.

“Mental attitude is so important. It’s the athletes’ drive. Take someone like Aileen Morrison [triathlete who is tipped to make the trip to London next year]. If you see her training up at the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland (SINI) on the stationery bike, it’s clear and obvious the drive that she has to be the best. If you go to the National Stadium and see the sparring that goes on, and even the controlled sparring, it’s unreal. Or if you go to Santry Stadium on a random Tuesday in February and see Derval O’Rourke getting ready for the European Indoors, the commitment she shows – there’s excellence everywhere.

“None of them are happy just going to the games. Athletes are driven to want to win a medal, some may never get to win a medal, but they only want to do the very best that they can. It might be top 16, it might be top eight, or it might be a medal, but just going there will never be enough.

“Athletes are always re-inventing how they do things and always trying to find the edge wherever they go, and find the best possible environment for them, and find the best possible training partners.”

Finbarr continues: “Irish athletes need to be training with the best in the world, there’s no doubt about it. David Gillick is training in Florida and being coached by one of the best 400m coaches there is in Lance Brauman. He’s in a group of guys who are very, very good. After the European Champs in Barcelona last year, he made a decision – he’d been training in Loughborough in England, he decided he’d done as much as he can there. He decided to go to Florida and find a group that he can work with, and he did.”

It’s clear that Ireland is producing the raw materials needed to compete at the very highest level, but coaches are need to mould that raw talent into something special.

“We always need more quality coaches,” says Finbarr. “An athlete needs a quality coach. It’s their most important relationship. Paddy Barnes or Kenneth Egan, they’ve got their club coach, but they’ve also got Billy Walsh the national coach, and behind Billy there’s Zuar Antia, who’s the technical guy in the IABA. And what makes these fellas better is good coaching. They’ve the natural ability, and the natural drive, and there are limitations, but if you’ve got good coaches then they’ll really bring you on – you need great coaches to get great athletes.”

Coaching Ireland was established to ensure that the coaching structures in place in Ireland. The Institute of Sport works with our elite coaches in providing professional development programs and the Institute also provides services for our elite athletes like psychology, nutrition, physiology, and physiotherapy. All the key components above and beyond money are there for athletes so all they have to do is concentrate on training hard.

“These structures weren’t here 10 years ago,” says Finbarr. “In some instances they weren’t here five years ago, but they are being put in place now, and one would hope that the testament about what is being done is the fact that in pretty deep recession our budgets are holding up.

“We’ve an important milestone next year in London and we hope we can be successful there.”

There is no doubting that competition amongst Ireland’s elite sportspeople is at the highest it has probably ever been. Ireland’s National Boxing Championships are one of the toughest in Europe. At middleweight for example, we have Darren O’Neill, Jason Quigley, who won the European Championships, and Eamon O’Kane, who won gold at the Commonwealth Games.

“If you want to become national champion at middleweight at boxing in Ireland, it’s a tough path,” agrees Finbarr. “It’s hard, as hard as anywhere else in Europe, bar maybe Russia.”

Finbarr continues: “In some sports, domestic competition is very, very strong. In swimming, in women’s 800m freestyle, if you put Grainne Murphy and Sycerika McMahon in a pool together, there wouldn’t be very much between them. In men’s junior middle-distance running at the moment, we’ve some young lads coming through – there’s a pocket of excellence in Donegal, lads like McBrierty who ran 1.47 for 800m indoors, which is very fast for a young lad who’s only 18 or 19. There’s Paul Roberts who ran four minutes for a mile as a junior last year.

“We’ve got world youths sailing championships coming to Dun Laoghaire next month – all of the best young sailor in the world will be there. We’ve got Annalise Murphy (21) who’s top 10 in the world in senior in laser radial class. Philip Doran is world underage champion. Finn Lynch, Tadgh Donnelly, and Rory Lynch are other potentially top-class sailors. They’ll all be there competing in their own country.”

Throw in sports people like Lisa Kearney (judo), senior sailors Peter Burrows and Peter O’Leary, Katie Taylor (boxing), cyclists Martyn Irvine, Nicholas Roche and Dan Martin, swimmer Barry Murphy, sprint canoeist Barry Watkins, rowers Siobhan McCrohan and Claire Lambe, shooters Philip Murphy and Derek Burnett, walker Olive Loughnane and junior walker Kate Veale, to name but a few of our Olympic and future Olympic hopefuls and you’ll realise the future’s bright.

The future’s gold.

[please advise on any errors or inaccuracies. Please credit Joe Finegan if using any content from this article]