Public money on Olympians is well spent

[caption id="attachment_66517" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="World and European champion Katie Taylor is a top Irish prospect for London Olympics next year."]


In the summer of 1980, I watched Hugh Russell win a bronze medal for Ireland in the flyweight boxing division at the Moscow Olympics. On a tiny portable television in a caravan park in Garretstown, we cheered the wiry-headed little fella in a green singlet with a shamrock on the chest. Fifteen years later, in the offices of The Irish News in Belfast, I was introduced to Russell (by then working as a photographer) and the memory of that summer in West Cork came flooding back. The memory of how fantastic it had been as a nine year old Irish boy to see this guy bring home a medal from the Soviet Union.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

I thought of Russell when I read about Ivan Yates, the politician cum bookie turned radio broadcaster's attempt to belittle a few Irish Olympians on Newstalk radio the other week. That somebody who served time in the Dail had the cheek to criticize anybody for receiving a cent of public money is shocking. What was especially galling about this, though, was just how plain wrong Yates was to attack single-minded individuals who sacrifice years of their lives representing Ireland in the noble pursuit of a sporting glory that will elude most of them. Apparently, Yates thinks they don't deserve €20,000 or €30,000 from the public purse to help them along the way.

This year, less than €2 million is going directly to our elite athletes. America and China probably spend that in a day preparing their men and women for next summer This money is supposed to help Ireland's finest to eat well, to rest properly, and to travel wherever in the world they must go in search of the best training facilities. We know they must travel, because thanks to generations of lack-luster politicians (no names or anything) through the decades in Leinster House, the vast majority of our best and brightest don't have the facilities to improve nearer home.

At a rough estimate, two million is a lot less than Yates's former colleagues in Fine Gael are currently spending hiring speechwriters for TDs and ministers who are obviously incapable of properly reciting clichés in public. Against that background, where is the public money better spent than on boxers and swimmers and runners who will fly the flag in London next year? Would Yates prefer it to be spent on hair and make-up for the taoiseach, on his wardrobe or on his limos?

If Yates is going to declare war on money being misallocated in a recessionary climate he needs to start looking nearer his former home in the Dail. It's been a long, long time since any TD or, God preserve us, the complete waste of time and money that is the Senate, ever inspired youngsters. That's exactly what our representatives in London will be doing.

It does a nation good to have people out there wearing its colors. In the darkest days of the 1980s, professional cycling lifted everybody's mood in Ireland. Sure, we didn't know then that it was a bit of a drugs farce but for a few years, we were thrilled to watch Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche vie for serious hardware on a regular basis. The true sports fans among us got loads too out of following the exploits of lesser lights like Paul Kimmage and Martin Earley. There was pride in just seeing a small island sending out its best to compete, no matter how they did.

We need people at the Olympics next year because the proximity of the event is going to fire imaginations of children all over Ireland. Does Yates want the Irish kids to think nobody from Wexford or Mayo or wherever is good enough to make it to that tournament? Does he want them watching and thinking the Olympics are just a five-ring circus that only Chinese or Americans and Australians can aspire to ever attending? When Johnny in Tallaght tells his mom he wants to become a runner, should she tell him that's only for Africans?

Given his background in the racing industry, it seems Yates is under the impression that making an Olympic team is comparable in difficulty to say buying a second-rate nag and running it in a point to point. David Gillick might not be the best 400-meter runner in the world but he is the best Irish runner of his time at that distance. He has won European titles at indoor and generally been a credit to the country over the past few years. Is that not enough to earn him a trip to stand with the best from other nations in an event where just three of them will medal?

I presume Yates knows that Ireland is in the grip of an obesity epidemic that threatens to overwhelm the already beleaguered health service over the next couple of decades. The whole nation is expanding at a worrying pace and no demographic is adding girth at a more furious clip than the most sedentary generation of children in our history. In America, Barack Obama's wife Michelle has made the battle against childhood obesity and the general laziness of the modern child the focal point of her years in the White House. More power to her. The same campaign needs to be run in Ireland and soon.

At the very same time that Yates was deriding men and women who've devoted a lifetime to sporting excellence and fitness, as opposed to say, a lifetime making money off the back of sportsmen through gambling, an obesity-battling company called Motivation Weight Management was announcing the opening of four new clinics in Ireland. With 25 clinics already in operation around the country, MWV hope to have 40 on the go by 2013. Business is expanding at the same rate as the national waistlines and they claim 300,000 Irish children can be classified as obese. Those kids need role models and inspiration, exactly what the Irish at the Olympics will bring.

Tourism Ireland Banner Ad