Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for sport here, it seems Sport NI have started slashing funding to some of our top athletes.
Local sport has been rocked by the backward decision-making of government which has led to the scrapping of five elite facilities and confirmation yesterday that no Olympic events will be staged in Northern Ireland. Now our individual stars are under threat.
Three of Northern Ireland’s world class swimmers — Andrew Bree, Melanie Nocher and Ryan Harrison — have all had their lottery funding axed.
Around eight swimmers have had their funding scrapped, leaving just rising stars Sycerika McMahon and Bethany Carson as the only two funded competitors. The fear now is that this will just be the beginning with other sports stars also suffering financial loss.
Applications for lottery funding for Ulster swimmers has no set criteria, leaving competitors and coaches in the dark as to how these are being processed.
Alan Nocher, Melanie’s father and Irish team manager at last year’s European championships, has been left bewildered and outraged by the decision to cut his daughter’s funding after a year in which she continued to deliver at the highest level.
“Melanie received a phone call to say she wouldn’t be funded and then SINI told us she wouldn’t be able to be part of their set-up because she wasn’t funded. We don’t know any reason why or what this decision is based on,” said Nocher.
“I’m all for funding being cut if someone is not delivering — that’s reasonable — but over the last year Melanie has added an event, the 400m free, and placed fifth at the European short course championships.
“She was also part of the Northern Ireland relay team which made the final of the Commonwealth Games and unfortunately got the ‘Delhi belly’ ahead of her main event, the 200m backstroke, but she has set new Irish records for the event.
“I know that her coach just cannot believe it and Swim Ulster will be looking to have this re-considered.”
Nocher, along with Bree and Harrison, will continue to be funded by the Irish Sports Council.
“The carding system down south is very simple — you have a set criteria and if you meet it then you get funded,” added Nocher.
This latest decision on the back of the axing of the elite facilities just compounds the belief that the local government remain in the dark ages when it comes to valuing sport and understanding what is required to produce elite sportsmen and women.
Basketball Northern Ireland’s development officer Jim Martin believes the decision to scrap the £7m basketball centre along with the other four facilities simply reflects the overall value given to sport in Northern Ireland.
Martin, from Iowa, said: “I don’t think the government gets it ... just what sport can do for people and I don’t even think the schools get it either.
“I suppose they don’t want an American coming over to tell them what to do and I don’t want to do that — but I do have to check myself because the perspective is so different to the States. Where I grew up sport was such high priority, maybe too much some would say, but it was very, very important.
“I remember leaving high school one day at 3.30pm and there was a queue outside waiting to buy tickets for a game that didn’t kick off until 7.30pm. It (the venue) held about 3,000 and over in Indiana they had a venue that held between 10 and 15,000.
“This basketball venue was going to cost around £6m to £8m, five years work had gone into it. Lisburn Council were right behind it and they spent thousands of pounds on putting the plans together. The only winners in all of this are the consultants.
“We don’t have a home basketball venue and this would have been ideal. There was to be three courts and a seating plan of 1250. It would have been perfect for us in the future. It’s a real shame.
“It would have been the best basketball centre in all of Ireland, we could have had international training and even some Irish internationals.”