Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 25 September 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport
Challenges Facing Minority Sports: Discussion
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to turn off their mobile phones completely as they may interfere with the recording of the meeting.
Before we welcome our distinguished visitors and guests, who were invited at the request of Senator Ó Céidigh, I will address one issue that arose following our previous meeting, regarding the Ardee bypass, which Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, has decided to review or pause. Following the meeting, I wrote to the chief executive of TII and asked to meet him to discuss this important issue. He responded yesterday evening but did not respond to my request to meet him. I am concerned about that and consider it unacceptable that he will not meet the Chairman of the committee to discuss the matter further and other issues that may arise. I propose that, with the consent of the committee, we write to TII seeking transparency and accountability on its decision to cease the tender of the project, and seeking its files and documents from 30 September. I believe that was the date, although I will confirm that with the clerk to the committee later, on which it instructed Louth County Council not to proceed. It is appropriate and proper that we request all the documentation and reports TII has relating the decision. When we receive them, we should consider them but in the meantime, with members' permission, I will write formally again to the chief executive and seek a meeting with him.
I turn to minority sports in Ireland. Senator Ó Céidigh has been active in encouraging the committee to identify, support, laud and applaud successful people in minority sports in our country. We are delighted that, at his request, the following representatives from Rowing Ireland are present: Ms Michelle Carpenter, chief executive; Mr. Eamon Colclough, president; and Mr. Neville Maxwell, Olympian, chairman of the Rowing Ireland high performance committee and member of the board. I also welcome Ms Sanita Puspure, Olympian, twice world gold medallist and 2019 European champion in the Olympic boat class, and Mr. Phil Doyle, world silver medallist in the Olympic boat class. Their achievements are fantastic. Finally, I welcome Ms Eimear Lambe, Ms Aifric Keogh, Ms Claire Feerick, Ms Mary Moloney, Mr. Stephen King, Mr. Fran Keane, Mr. Dominic Casey, Mr. Ronan Byrne, Mr. Fintan McCarthy, Mr. Leo Gibson, Ms Monica Dukarska and Ms Tara O'Hanlon, who are sitting in the Public Gallery. Our guests are very welcome and we are delighted for them to appear before the committee. It is great to see so many people achieving so much in sport.
I invite Senator Ó Céidigh to address the committee.
I express a deep, sincere "Thank you" to all our guests for appearing before the committee. It is a special occasion because it is the first time that Rowing Ireland has presented to an Oireachtas committee, but also because of what Rowing Ireland does and how it inspires people whom its board members do not know and will never meet. In some cases, a board member could walk down a street 50 yd. away from a rower, and the latter might not see or hear what the former does.
We need inspiration in our country in many ways and people like the delegates to give it to us.
I am particularly grateful to the Chairman, the executive and my colleagues for totally supporting the request I made that the delegates come to address the committee and the people of Ireland. The proceedings are available live on the Oireachtas television channel. In Ireland we must all become much more aware of what the delegates do and the efforts they make. I speak specifically to Mr. Colclough, Ms Carpenter and Mr. Maxwell as members of the executive, as well as the team around them in terms of what they achieve. I will not speak for long now as it is not for me to speak for them.
Just over six years ago I had a heart attack and was quite ill. My heart stopped and I asked myself what I would do. When a great guy from Galway, Mr. Pádraig Bree, asked me to go rowing, I said I would never be able to do it, but I went and it was the finest thing I did in the six years since. I have met people from the Tribesmen rowing club who have inspired me to keep going and fighting, telling me that life is about what one can do, not the obstacles before us. Rowing Ireland does this for many people, including me. It is an incredible privilege that the delegates are here and they will be in the audiovisual room at 2 p.m. to address all Deputies and Senators on what Rowing Ireland is about, what its challenges are and what it has achieved with little or no resources. I got to know a little about what rowing was about a good few years ago as I went to school at the "Jes" in Galway where I used to teach I had some awareness of rowing. As I lived in Connemara, I had to get a bus in and out and did not have time to go training. I go to know some of the athletes, including incredible people like Sam Lynch and others. They put in huge effort and had pride in the jersey which is equal to that of any international athlete in any place. We are very privileged to have it.
The purpose of the meeting is to enable the delegates to share some of their story, what they are doing and trying to achieve. I also want the State to acknowledge this and give the financial support to which are entitled and deserve. They are punching so much above their weight without sufficient resources. It is incumbent on us to support Rowing Ireland properly, at least in order that its rowers can fight on a level playing field with the New Zealanders, the British and all other countries of the world that are receiving resources way over and above what they get here. I know that all of the athletes are dependent on their parents, families and friends just to get by. That is not good enough.
I must read the statement on privilege before anybody addresses the committee. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Ms Michelle Carpenter:
I am joined by Mr. Eamonn Colclough, president of Rowing Ireland, and Mr. Neville Maxwell, chairman of our high performance committee and board member, as well as by world silver medalist Mr. Philip Doyle and twice world gold medallist Ms Sanita Pušpure. I thank the joint committee for giving us the opportunity to present on the challenges facing minority sports in Ireland.
There is one week every four years when the mass media cover minority sports. It is the first week of the Olympic Games. However, in recent Olympiad the amateur ethos has been abandoned and we have seen the introduction of professional soccer, basketball, tennis and rugby. This development has resulted in an incursion into the domain of minority sports as the summer Olympiad has a ceiling of 10,500 athletes and the introduction of the sports I mentioned has resulted in a reduced allocation of athletes in traditional Olympic sports.
There are many challenges facing minority sports in Ireland and they are exacerbated by the overwhelming media coverage of major sports like Gaelic games and professional sports such as soccer and rugby. When opening an Irish newspaper, people observe that these sports enjoy 90% of sports coverage. They are mainly mass participation sports in that the games can fill a stadium, although their coverage does not regularly extend our sporting success as a nation. The former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stated "the nation unites when [we] succeed on the international stage. All sport is a powerful force in creating social harmony." Minority sports, however successful, are conducted in a virtual media vacuum and, therefore, struggle to attract significant commercial sponsorship. They rely on remittances from participants, the excellent sports capital grant system and Sport Ireland funding. However, what pride and achievement they bring to a country when they bring home those medals. This affects not only the country's mood but also the economy as a whole. To those of us involved in minority sports, it is a source of amazement that such a vast amount of State funding goes into the major sports which enjoy in our perception vast financing by gate receipts, television coverage and commercial sponsorship. Most of these significant sports have the luxury of being held behind high walls, which enables them to command significant income from gate receipts.
In the 2016 Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro Ireland won its first Olympic rowing medal. In a post-race interview after the semi-final our two athletes decided to have a bit of craic with the interviewer. The interview was so refreshingly different from the media trained, cliché ridden conversations that it went viral. With that, the O'Donovan brothers became an Internet sensation. In Rowing Ireland we assumed we would be able to capitalise on this publicity to attract significant commercial sponsorship. However, despite contacting dozens of Irish firms and corporations, the media circus had quickly moved back to major sports and it became evident that if a sport was in a virtual media blackout for all but one week of the Olympiad, commercial sponsors were not interested. I have been fortunate to be involved in rowing since I was 13 years old. Rowing has followed me from Limerick city and its six rowing clubs to Dublin and the banks of the River Liffey throughout my career in Strasbourg and Frankfurt and back to Ireland. I have seen the benefits, as have my colleagues, of the sport of rowing. They are dedication, hard work, perseverance and the ability to work alone and in a team. It sounds like a job specification, but it is what we learn with our sport.
One of our first achievements when I took over as chief executive officer was launching our strategic plan last year and its four main pillars. The first pillar is "Rowing for All: A Sport for Life". In 2019 Rowing Ireland has increased its membership by 25%. This total does not include anyone who does not race and just rows for pleasure or recreationally. They are licensed, competitive members, but there are thousands more members of Rowing Ireland. Rowing Ireland also has 30,000 individual students as part of the Get Going, Get Rowing programme, a schools programme that allows students to row, with a pathway to clubs and on-the-water rowing. In 2019 we had numerous students from the Get Going, Get Rowing programme who went on to clubs and represent Ireland at junior international level.
Being in line with the national physical activity plan is key for us in Rowing Ireland, working with all ages and abilities, from women in sport to men on the move, as well as children and young people with autism, Down's syndrome and other skills. We see no barriers in our sport.
Although we may be considered a minority sport with only racing licence memberships captured, we punch well above our weight and work hand in hand with our local sports partnerships, as is recommended under the national physical activity plan.
Our second pillar is leading our sport. With a small staff base and limited resources, we strive to do this. We are one of the few national governing bodies that has achieved the governance code of Ireland. Despite constraints, we will continue to strive to be an innovative national governing body using effective and efficient internal structures and systems.
Our third pillar involves supporting clubs. Rowing clubs are the hub of our sport. Many are located in areas of socioeconomic need and cater for all. Most of our clubs are struggling with volunteers and the ability to provide for new members. However, last year, our Irish championships, which took place at the National Rowing Centre in Cork, had the highest ever number of participants with thousands racing over three days. Our regattas are seeing record numbers and clubs have the highest ever membership. We have clubs that cater from the ages of eight to 88 across the 32 counties of Ireland from Cork to Antrim, Galway to Dublin.
Last but not least is the pillar of the sport of which we are so proud, namely, high performance. Our objective is to excel. We had five athletes after the Olympic Games in Rio, two of whom retired. In August 2017, when our high-performance director joined our team, we had 11 lightweight rowers in our programme, a category in which Ireland has always been steadfast. However, we were aware that the lightweight programme may be slashed from the Olympic Games and we needed to up our game. Two years later, we have nine lightweight men and women and ten open weight men and women. Three of those open weight boats have qualified for the Olympic Games. We are now in a different place. We are ranked second in the world in Olympic boat classes ahead of our rivals in Germany and Great Britain and such great rowing nations as the US and Australia. We have qualified more boats than ever before. Four boats will go to Tokyo to represent us. With three world championship medals in Olympic class boats, we are poised and ready for it in less than 37 weeks' time. We will not stop there because we are also confident we can qualify a fifth boat at next week's regatta in Lucerne. In addition, we have an amazing athlete - Katie O'Brien - who took home a bronze medal in this year's PR2 event. She was trained by a volunteer coach all year. If one was to look at research on world rowing, one would see that it is a well-known fact in coaching that it takes €1 million per year per boat to win an Olympic medal. It also takes one-to-one coaching of crews. We have qualified on a fraction on that. Pathways are crucial. In 2019, we won two medals - silver and bronze - at the World Rowing Under 23 Championships. The winners were also coached by volunteer coaches. Our junior men's four came fourth in the World Rowing Junior Championships while the same crew won a silver medal at the European championships. Our future is bright. We are ready for Tokyo and the benefit it will bring us as a country. Sport provides a platform for people to come together and support their country. International events like the Olympic Games serve as a point around which to rally and show national pride and unity. We are ready to drive this. Despite efforts, we still do not have a large sponsor or philanthropist to support us. As stated, most minority sports suffer from this ailment. Despite our success, it seems few want to invest in our journey to Tokyo and the dream and reality of Olympic medals. We rely on Sport Ireland for funding and are very grateful for its support. As an organisation and a country, we must give our athletes, who dedicate their lives to training more than 15 times per week, the dream and reality of medals. It is also important to support the pathway so that we can continue until Paris and Los Angeles.
I will conclude with the words of our high-performance director in his recent summary of our position. He stated:
With three Olympic class medals, Ireland was ranked 2nd in the world for the Olympic Boat categories (not including the Para), surpassing all objectives and expectations and in doing so breaking Rowing Ireland records. With three medals and four crews selected for the Olympics, we are no longer the Irish underdogs, but we are now what countries and crews worldwide will look at and think of when training and striving to improve their performances. This means that we have now set a bar and that more than ever, we as a team must be even more dedicated, committed, and focused. We must strive to look for ways to improve and keep our foot firmly flat on the accelerator.
All our opponents will put the photos of our medallist athletes on their mirrors because they are the ones to beat.
I thanks Ms Carpenter for a very authoritative and deep analysis of the work done by and needs of Rowing Ireland and the significant success it has had, which is recognised internationally. If there is anything this committee can do to help Rowing Ireland, it will do it. Hopefully, some potential sponsors will appear on foot of this meeting. Some people might like to get involved anyway. Achieving at the highest level is fantastic. Participating is equally important. I visited Kew Gardens about two Saturdays ago. There were hundreds of people rowing on the river there. It took about two hours to go by so there is considerable interest and participation. I welcome the increased participation about which Ms Carpenter spoke. Believe it or not, I rowed in my youth. Ms Carpenter probably does not know Gerry Daly but he might be listening. He was a local solicitor at the time who got us all involved. We had a great time as well as a great club so there is a social side to it as well. Friendships are made. The important thing about rowing is that people are all together. It is about teamwork and organisation.
I will take Senator O'Mahony first but does any witness wish to say anything else? Our guests are more than welcome to offer any views they might have at any time - they do not have to do so now. We want to hear their thoughts.
Mr. Eamonn Colclough:
It is a privilege to be here to address the committee and to be in the presence of the athletes we have. These are the prime athletes in Irish sport. Ms Pušpure, who is beside me, is the golden woman of Irish sport with two World Championship medals - one gold and one silver. It is an amazing privilege. I started rowing in the 1960s. It was beyond our wildest dreams and it was not until the 1970s that Seán Drea almost single-handedly dragged us into the sport closely followed by the Garda coxed fours rowing team. We decided then rather than having individuals or clubs doing it, we would open up a national squad so that talented athletes from all the clubs throughout the 32 counties could have the opportunity to be brought together, nurtured and developed - not only to compete with the best but to beat the best. We have been phenomenally successful. How well our athletes have done has been a revelation. I was at a FISA congress after the World Championships this year at which several people, including the president of FISA and the great Sir Steve Redgrave, the five-time Olympic champion, came over to me. Here I was - the humble Irishman - sitting down with my votes at the congress but the number of people who came up to me and asked about what we were doing in Ireland and how we were doing it was amazing because they know we work on a shoestring. Of course, it is down to hard work. In our high-performance director, Antonio Maurogiovanni, we have the Alex Ferguson of rowing and I hope we can keep him because he has been so phenomenally successful. The committee has no concept of how hard the athletes train. Why are they beating everybody else in the world? It is because they train harder than everybody else.
There is no inspiration and it is not the air down in Cork, although Cork has a reputation for producing fabulous athletes. They train harder than everyone else. They are truly amazing people. The demands placed on them are phenomenal.
I thank our guests for their presentation and for their articulation of the obstacles and difficulties that they face as a minority sport. I compliment Senator Ó Céidigh on inviting them to attend. This meeting is an opportunity for them to highlight their needs. I congratulate them on overcoming the obstacles to bring so much success and glory to the country. Everyone is there to greet the athletes at airport arrivals, but it is the dark days and difficult training that goes on behind the scenes that no one sees that need to be supported.
The sports capital grant for facilities comes in at some stage, but what funding does Rowing Ireland get as the governing body? When the Olympic Federation of Ireland or Sport Ireland appear before us, we hear of how targets are always set for the number of medals to be won at Olympic Games. Some of us made a suggestion a number of years ago. Britain had targeted cycling at some stage. In this case, Rowing Ireland has broken through the glass ceiling in terms of performances and medals. Surely there is a case to be made - I would support this committee making such a recommendation - to view rowing as an opportunity to win more medals. After the few weeks of each Olympic Games, we all look at the medals table. Poor old Ireland might have done well in boxing and so on, but we have an open opportunity in this case. A discrimination needs to be made. As the witnesses stated, they find it difficult to attract large sponsors. I have been a member of the GAA for years and I know the great work it does, but there is a need for us as a country to target those areas where we can be successful. Rowing Ireland has demonstrated success in recent years, which has bounced up on our radar. Now, we need to grasp the opportunity in whatever way we can to support Rowing Ireland in continuing its great work.
The Australian Prime Minister's comments about sport inspiring people were mentioned. I happened to be speaking at a summer school this year and my theme was how sport could unite and inspire in a way that politics and other activities could not, especially these days. In preparation, I switched on the "Nine O'Clock News" the night before. Apart from the sport news, everything shown was a bad news story: a mass murder in the US, a dissident attack in Northern Ireland, Brexit and so on. Suddenly, the programme went over to the sport. Rowing Ireland had many successes over the summer months, and one of the items on the segment was rowing. There were other successes in golf. As such, the only good news stories in that news programme had to do with sport. It was the only inspiration.
This presents an opportunity. Rowing Ireland mentioned that its sport did not get media coverage, although I hope that is changing, particularly in the context of 20X20 in respect of female sports. There needs to be increased media coverage of minority sports. The majority sports will always get coverage.
I compliment the witnesses. Whenever the Olympic Council of Ireland or Sport Ireland appear before us, I will push so that minority sports that have proven themselves via medals get positive discrimination in the form of extra funding.
Ms Michelle Carpenter:
Our high-performance budget is €600,000 per year. In New Zealand, which is a country of the same size, the budget is equivalent to €3 million. Out of the €600,000, we also run the National Rowing Centre. Using some other core money, we run programmes like the Get Going, Get Rowing programme and support clubs. Funding the National Rowing Centre costs us €100,000 out of that pot of money. The athletes here will testify as to how it can be a cold place in the winter, as we are trying to save the pennies. Much of our budget goes on camps, which are important. Ireland is an island on the west coast of Europe, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Since mileage is key with rowing, it is important that we get to sunnier climates. It is similar to what is done with cycling in Majorca. Our camps can take up a sixth of the budget in the blink of an eye.
We could spend all day offering plaudits on Rowing Ireland's success. Ms Carpenter referred to Irish rowing punching above its weight. We all have to acknowledge that. Rowing Ireland even punched above its weight in getting to appear before this committee. It was only March 2018 when its former CEO, Mr. Hamish Adams, presented to us on behalf of minority sports.
The topic of national television coverage was mentioned. When I was a young man, we always used to watch swimming, gymnastics, rowing and perhaps one or two other sports at the Olympics outside of the field and track events. Coverage has grown immensely since.
I wish to clarify something that was said about participation in the upcoming Olympics. Is Rowing Ireland limited by the number of boats or by time qualification? If each of its athletes achieved a qualifying time for the Olympics, how would participation be limited? It was mentioned that, owing to the increase in the number of athletes going to the Olympics due to an increase in the number of sports, Rowing Ireland was being forced to reduce its participation at a time when it was becoming more successful in terms of qualification times. Ms Carpenter might elaborate on that point.
I am a Corkman and the most well-known rowing club near to me is in Fermoy. I will not go into the water difficulties it faces because of the problem with the weir, but it puts on a tremendous show, has great volunteers and supplies good athletes. Famous names down through the years include Mr. Gearóid Towey and Fr. Pat Rice. A great deal of work has gone into it, as has capital investment. It is okay for the athlete, but the rowing club has to pay for the boats. Submissions have been made to the Government, including by representatives on Rowing Ireland's behalf, about getting a VAT reduction on equipment. That would be a major plus.
Another issue is funding. I note Rowing Ireland's concerns about sponsorships going to larger sporting events. There is a suggestion that philanthropic bodies be given a tax exemption to supply it with funding. That has been advocated for by one of the umbrella organisations, the Federation of Irish Sport.
The Government launched its sport policy document just over 12 months ago. Everyone signed up to it.
Is Rowing Ireland happy that it is going the right way from its perspective? Could it go faster? Should more be done within that policy document to enable Rowing Ireland's support to progress further? I acknowledge Rowing Ireland's point about regulatory compliance. As that causes enormous expense for Rowing Ireland, has it been taken into account when funding is being allocated by Sport Ireland and other bodies? I wish Rowing Ireland every success. I am delighted to see the witnesses in attendance. We have many aspiring rowers for the years ahead present. Maybe some of them have medals already in juvenile competition. We wish them all the best.
Donald Trump wants the Chairman to come over. He has a small bit of bother at the moment and he said there is only one man who can save him before he is sent on a further journey and that is the Chairman of the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport.
I wish to pay tribute to the athletes. I know they are not in it to participate. They are in it to win and that is made all the harder by the lack of funding. We saw what happened when hockey had its tremendous success when the silver medal was achieved in the world cup. That was a similar story of an underfunded organisation. Then there was the promise of funding, when it was given €1 million, but it was not quite as it had been initially portrayed. Rowing Ireland outlined the issue that it is operating on a budget that is a fraction of that of New Zealand. The figure of €1 million per boat and the requirement for one-to-one coaching is quite stark. Luckily enough, we are in pre-budget season so this is the right time for Rowing Ireland to be asking for money. As Sport Ireland will be before the committee on 16 October, what change can this committee ask of Sport Ireland, on Rowing Ireland's behalf, that is available and can be done? I agree with my colleagues that those who are excelling should get a bonus because of the hard work they have done over the years. I also wish to hear from the rowers themselves. I thank them for their attendance but we did not ask them to be here just for the photo opportunity. We also want to hear their points of view because it is they who must get up in the dark mornings in the cold winter. We can imagine how difficult it is but we would like to hear from them on what they would like to see changed in the system that would assist them to achieve their full potential.
Mr. Phil Doyle:
I will respond to Senator Mark Daly on one thing we could change for the athletes. As well as receiving funding from the Government, Rowing Ireland receives separate funding on our performances throughout the year from Sport Ireland. This funding runs from January to January. It starts on 1 January when one becomes a carded athlete. One then receives one's first payment on 1 April and there are three-monthly payments ranging from €12,000 to €20,000 and up to €40,000, depending on performance. For example, there are certain people who have won the world championships in September and now they are expected to not be in university and to be funded by parents, family and friends. Commercial sponsorship is difficult to get. I was such an athlete last September and there are athletes in the same position now. There is no review of funding and performance between January of one year and January of the next year. These individuals are expected to fully fund themselves in Cork during an accommodation crisis. I am a Northern athlete from Belfast and the rent prices are extortionate in Cork. Getting rental accommodation is difficult. Putting down a deposit, paying the first month of rent and all the additional costs are also difficult. Athletes are expected to do that without receiving a penny until April. That is seven months of athletes fully supporting and funding themselves while rowing full-time. Feeding a rower is difficult as well and it costs a lot of money. My mum has been complaining about it non-stop for the last month because I have moved home after the world championships.
Something in the system that could be looked into is to reassess funding requirements and to make changes to it throughout the year. For example, because I am from the North, I get access to Great Britain and Ireland. I have made my decision and am very happy with it but I have a lot of contacts over there and they get funding reassessments three or four times per year. As athletes move in and out of the squad and the system, and as they perform or do not perform, they have their funding adjusted according to their needs. That would be massively helpful, especially in getting people onto the programme. For example, I am qualified as a doctor so last year I had to go back to work for four months over Christmas because I could not afford to row full-time coming out of university with no money, savings or job. As my parents could not afford to keep me down in Cork full-time, I had to take time out of the boat, which meant my doubles partner, Ronan Byrne, was on his own in Cork and I was training on my own in Belfast while working a full-time job in a hospital to try to get through because there was no way to reassess my requirements or funding needs during that time. Eventually, when I knew the money would be coming in on 1 April I had some savings and was able to make the transition down to Cork. I do not know how people do that without having a job to go to in the middle of Christmas. It must be very difficult.
Mr. Doyle brought up the point of food consumption. Rowers have to take in many calories every day and the cost of that alone is enormous. Some sports require larger calorie intakes than others and I presume Sport Ireland does not take account of that. The grant is literally a one-size-fits-all operation. Sport Ireland will be in front of the committee but the budget planning is also ongoing and I know everyone is in agreement with the proposals that when one is excelling, one should get more and there should be a bonus payment. We would like Rowing Ireland to write to us after this meeting outlining what it is asking for, especially in light of the fact there is such a gap of over half a year between becoming eligible for funding and the cheque coming in the post. That is when performance will dip because if one has to go back to work's performance will decrease as a result of not being able to train full-time.
Mr. Phil Doyle:
We have to pay a levy for competitions and camps. The athletes pay 23% of the overall cost of these vital camps out of the funding we receive. A person who is not receiving that funding is charged €600 to go to Italy for three weeks and to kill himself or herself in a boat. It is difficult to come to terms with that. For the camp before the recent world championships and the world championships themselves, we received a bill for going. It is pay-for-play for medals. That is something that could be looked at and changed to provide additional funding to cover the athlete's payment for going to the competition. I know some athletes in other sports and they have never heard of this idea of paying a levy.
Those are the problems we want to hear about. We want to hear about the day-to-day nuts and bolts problems the athletes are facing in trying to win medals. We want to then find solutions to the problems the athletes are having.
Ms Sanita Puspure:
For example, Fintan McCarthy is a world champion now and he will receive no funding until April and then he will only have funding for a few months before he goes to the Olympics. That is no help to him because he will be under more stress up until April and he will have to pay for all the camps and everything.
I want to be clear on this issue because Sport Ireland is here before us on 16 October. Does it not matter if it is an Olympic year or not? Does Sport Ireland not see one year as any different to the other? That does not make a lot of sense.
Ms Michelle Carpenter:
The Olympic class and world class athletes who won medals last year get two years of funding but there may be a change in a crew, such as in the women's four team, and Fintan McCarthy's team. They only came on the scene this year and some of them had been developmental athletes.
They would not have been on the carding criteria or were only on a small amount from the carding criteria. They will have to wait until next April to receive it, which adds to the stress and strain. When one should be focusing on one's boat and being the person in the mirror, one is instead focusing on how to pay one's rent.
Mr. Neville Maxwell:
I reiterate the point that Ms Sunita Puspure made, which is that the athletes all make a strong contribution to the events that they go to. There are few sports globally where one has to pay to represent one's country, one comes home with a medal and that is it. That should be looked at. We have to do it this way because of the way the funding is divided. We have a programme in place, a dream and a strategy to have far more crews at the Olympic Games and world championships and to win many more medals than we are talking about here today. All we need is the funding. The athletes are in clubs around the country. They are looking at the people here today, having seen them on television, and want to achieve and emulate what the people here have done. We are showing them how to do it but we need more people to coach them and to look after them. We need to have a system in place where they can come down to Cork and train or train in different centres around the country. We have a good blueprint that we are not showing to any other country. It is our secret but we have a great attitude among our athletes, volunteers and coaches. We are like a start-up business at present. We need the funding to grow this. Our target for 2024 and 2028 is far beyond what we have done so far this year.
In the context of some other organisations that have appeared before the committee, the FAI used to request that funding be front-loaded. If that was happening with one, it should be happening with minority sports in particular because they need it more.
Mr. Neville Maxwell:
Sport Ireland is open to that and we will work with it to try to look after certain athletes who have jumped into that category. Ultimately, it comes back to the number that Ms Carpenter mentioned earlier, of €690,000. We won four world championship medals, three of them in an Olympic category this year alone, but we are significantly underfunded as a sport relative to our peers in other countries. Imagine what we could do if we had double or triple the funding.
Sport Ireland will appear before this committee. In an Olympic year, why would an organisation be paid in October when it needs funding in the run-up to the Olympics? We need to ask Sport Ireland why it is not making the sensible decision in that regard. Athletes who have qualified for the Olympics should be peaking in the run-up to the games. We need to establish why Sport Ireland does not front-load the money in Olympic years for people who qualify for the Olympics and appear out of nowhere; although I know nobody really appears out of nowhere when qualifying for the Olympics. We seek solutions. If the witnesses identify the problems and solutions, we would like to propose those to Sport Ireland, including asking the Minister to bring forward its budget. The money will still have to be spent and allocated but there is no point in giving Rowing Ireland money between October and December when the Olympics is now another three and a half years away. We wanted the witnesses to raise those issues and the practical day-to-day problems with rent and accommodation, and a person having to wait for seven months for the money when he or she is a qualifier. If the witnesses come up with any other solutions between now and 16 October, please bring them to us and we will be able to raise them with Sport Ireland and the Minister.