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Rio Olympics: You can't put a price on sporting success

At what cost should we in Northern Ireland chase Olympic glory? The stunning success of the Great Britain team, in sharp contrast to Ireland’s meagre haul from a troubled Games for the team in green, has reignited the debate over funding and faciltiies. Seoul 1988 hockey gold medallist, Jimmy Kirkwood, from Lisburn, contends that the overall benefits of Olympic success cannot be measured solely in financial terms

By Jimmy Kirkwood

Published 24/08/2016

All smiles: Gold medalists of Team GB pose for a selfie with a member of British Airways cabin crew prior to flying back from Rio
All smiles: Gold medalists of Team GB pose for a selfie with a member of British Airways cabin crew prior to flying back from Rio

My dad, nephew and I headed out to Rio for a week to primarily watch Ireland's hockey team play in their first Olympics in over 100 years, but also to take in the overall Olympic experience.

Obviously we had heard about the Zika virus, Rio being an unsafe city and other potential infrastructure issues, so we travelled with an element of trepidation but we came back having had the time of our lives.

Yes, there were some areas in the city that you wouldn't necessarily want to be in at night, and there's no doubt that Rio is a city of the haves and have nots, but the people were fantastic. Rio is the most spectacular city I've ever been to, and although many sports venues were poorly attended, the ultimate goal of participating or becoming an Olympic champion still ensured that at no stage did this appear to devalue the Olympic ideal.

I'm not sure why, but to me and so many others, the Olympics matter. Very quickly, whether in work or socially, everyone becomes an expert on sports that elsewhere are given little or no profile.

Why does a 58 year old Nick Skelton winning a showjumping gold in his seventh Games become a talking point or a Taekwondo athlete losing in the last second resonate? People with only a passing knowledge of sport seem to 'get' the fact that winning a medal or even just performing at the Olympics is often only after many years of dedication with all types of personal sacrifices.

For most sports, athletes would swap most or all previous triumphs for Olympic success and this is tangibly evident in their emotions that can often be almost uncomfortably raw.

In case you're still not sure, I'm a big fan of the Olympics... but at what cost should we in Northern Ireland chase Olympic glory? Our athletes have the ability to take part either through GB or Ireland, with both governments willing to spend much more on Olympic success than 20 years ago, but these funds have been redirected from other areas that many would argue are more deserving. That is why it is important for funding to be seen to be spent wisely and equitably.

There is a perception in some quarters of UK funding tending to favour a middle to upper class Home Counties set with less privileged regions, Northern Ireland among them, the poor relation. That notion was not dispelled by the dropping of Northern Ireland several years ago from the team title of GB and NI.

It is understandable that living in some parts of the UK or Ireland may give individuals an advantage in their particular sporting choices, for example living beside an Olympic-sized pool, being part of a well organised athletics club or having easy access to velodromes. I'm aware that facilities are important but are immediately diminished without the correct supporting coaching infrastructure.

Undoubtedly, GB, and Northern Ireland, have benefited enormously from Lottery funding that has increased Olympic success in sports where GB was previously happy to just take part. Ireland has also had increased government funding with boxing being the biggest beneficiary.Look how that worked out this time, underpinning the monetary case that it's not how much but how you spend it that's key.

GB incredibly, won more medals in more sports than any other country, but along with Ireland, an awareness that funds are finite tends to see the lion's share directed at sports with the 'biggest bang for their buck'. Winning 100 metre medals is aspirational but a medal in the velodrome, rowing, boxing and sailing counts just the same on the medal table.

On the suggestion of imbalance with regard to provision of facilities here in Northern Ireland, a large helping of realism is required. Facilities tend to be very expensive and it is unreasonable that funding is made to improve or build state of the art sporting facilities where reasonable usage will never be attained solely due to our relatively small population. Outdoor facilities would also be rendered unusable in winter.

To me, sport is important on so many levels, and having high achieving and winning athletes at the Olympics does create a can-do culture with young athletes recognising that the Olympics is a realistic goal, especially if someone from their local boxing or swimming club has done it before them.

The fact that Stephen Martin and Billy McConnell were hockey medallists at the 1984 Olympics certainly made me reset my goals looking to Seoul in 1988. Team GB or Team Ireland are exactly that. We are competing collectively against the rest of the world and rightly take pride in how well we can compete.

Of course it doesn't help with paying our bills or replace daily grinds but it can often make us feel better about ourselves and allow others to dream. Ladies hockey had an increase in numbers after GB won bronze at London and a further increase in numbers is expected after the Rio success. It's a safe bet that rowing numbers at Skibbereen Rowing Club will be well increased after the O'Donovan brothers tremendous showing... this can only be good.

I'm involved in the Mary Peters Trust that financially supports young athletes when funds are especially tight with the burden often falling on parents. I am constantly amazed at the dedication of these athletes who are juggling school/university/work with heavy training schedules.

Without digressing too much, I firmly believe that these young athletes will be overall contributors to Northern Ireland society in many ways, with or without future sporting success. Sport gives these youngsters confidence and belief in themselves - that is apparent in how they conduct themselves, while I am convinced that this benefit is not exclusive to high achievers, but to most kids who get involved in a sport.

If we can ensure that more youngsters are motivated and encouraged to participate in sport at all levels from an early stage with potential high performers identified, the numbers game alone will eventually improve international performance.

Once identified, how these athletes are nurtured, while ensuring that facilities are available, will all be key to sporting success. The reality is that this may require increased travelling to access facilities and high performance coaching but this is no different to other athletes in Ireland or GB. I have never met a high achieving athlete yet who hasn't had to make considerable personal sacrifice but hopefully, with the right support structure, these sacrifices will ultimately have better results.

Various numbers, some right off the Richter scale, have been bandied around that each GB medal actually cost over £4m in funding while Ireland's return, although disappointing against London's achievements, should still be viewed in the context that Ireland is a small country that generally punches above its weight.

The overall benefits of Olympic success cannot be measured solely in financial terms but it is still imperative that any financial support is continually appraised, proportionate and is fully transparent.

Jimmy Kirkwood is one of only four NI gold medallists in Olympic history, alongside Dame Mary Peters (pentathlon, Munich 1972), Stephen Martin (hockey, Seoul 1988) and Robin Dixon, now Lord Glentoran (bobsleigh, Innsbruck Winter Olympics, 1964). He is also a director of the Mary Peters Trust

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