Sport NI Chief: Northern Ireland will still chase Commonwealth gold but cuts will make it hard
Chief Executive Antoinette McKeown says Sport NI's ability to produce champions for the 2018 Commonwealth Games will be severely challenged due to the £1 million budget cuts facing the organisation.
The Belfast Telegraph revealed yesterday that Sport NI, the leading public body for the development of sport here, has been told by the Northern Ireland Executive that next year's budget will be decreased by 11.2% amounting to a whopping £1,037,000.
Respected Belfast boxer Paddy Barnes told this newspaper that a lack of government investment will see sport in the country go backwards and Ms McKeown admits that recent financial decisions made at Stormont have placed pressure on Sport NI, who strive to improve sport at all levels from grassroots to elite.
Team Northern Ireland won 12 medals at this year's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow with Barnes and fellow fighter Michael Conlan bringing home gold.
After the event in Scotland, Ms McKeown stated Sport NI were targeting more podium places at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.
While admitting that the cuts will now make it tougher to achieve such a feat, she has outlined her determination to give athletes every chance possible.
"We are looking at a new strategy for Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI), where so many of our elite athletes train and learn, as part of the new Sport NI strategy overall," said the former Chief Executive of the Consumer Council (pictured).
"We are also working with the various sports, to identify on the back of Glasgow 2014, where we want to take Northern Ireland sport for the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018.
"We are very ambitious for more gold at the Gold Coast.
"We recognise that will be seriously challenged in the current financial period but that will be the focus of where we put our money in SINI because SINI is about winning medals."
SINI, based at Ulster University, Jordanstown, is considered an outstanding facility and has been a key factor behind the success of a number of Northern Ireland sports stars on the world stage, including history making Winter Paralympics skiing champion Kelly Gallagher, Paralympic legends Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth, world champion cyclist Martyn Irvine and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist judo star Lisa Kearney plus sailors Matt McGovern and Ryan Seaton, who have already qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as the brilliant Barnes and Conlan.
"That success doesn't happen by chance, that is down to careful planning and tailor made investment in those athletes which we want to maintain and grow," said the Sport NI chief.
"Netball Northern Ireland has also had considerable support and they are now classed seventh in the world as a result of considerable analysis and input from our Sports Institute.
"And we do a considerable amount of work with our three main team sports, football, gaelic games and rugby. We work with those sports with issues such as strength and conditioning right through to supporting our young footballers who go across the water to try and make it in the Premier League."
Asked directly if Sport NI would have to lower their bar in terms of overall success, Ms McKeown replied: "That is a genuine concern that we have which is why our new strategy has got to focus on where we can have the biggest impact and maintain the current ground. We think by having fewer objectives and very clear goals for both participation and performance and getting that pathway right that will protect us to some extent, but you cannot take one million pounds out of a budget and not expect some casualties.
"We will work with sports and are relying on them to work with us. We want to invest in the sports where they need it. That might be at the grassroots level, it may be at the talent nurtuting level or the SINI level.
"It very much depends where the sports are and we are committed to working with them with honesty and realism. We want to engage with them and make these decisions together."
She added: "Even though we have a very much more professional sector than we had 10 years ago, this is a sector which relies heavily on volunteers and a lot of the work Sport NI does is developing the capacity of those volunteers.
"If we lose the capacity to do that then the capacity of the volunteers is lost in turn.
"In a region that gives so much to sport, that could be the biggest sacrifice."
Some may argue that with such wide ranging cuts across so many services in Northern Ireland, sport has done pretty darn well from government, which has shelled out over £100 million to upgrade three major grounds, Windsor Park, the Kingspan Stadium and Casement Park.
"We have to reflect on the fact that we have had a very serious under investment in infrastructure right across Northern Ireland as a result of the Troubles," she said.
"The sports sector is no different, in fact it has lagged considerably behind what we have seen in the rest of the United Kingdom so I think it is right and fitting that we recognise the contribution that sport makes to Northern Ireland and those three stadiums are helping to close the gap to what is in the UK and what's in Northern Ireland.
"We needed that investment. What we don't need is any further cuts."