Thursday, 17 December 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Before I begin, I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Cheann Comhairle, all the staff and management in the convention centre and in Leinster House, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, a happy Christmas. I also take the opportunity, as a Dub, to wish the Dublin men's and women's GAA teams luck for the weekend. I acknowledge the huge credit that must go to the GAA for managing to organise a championship when there have been so many challenges.
There are more than 60 recognised national sports governing bodies under the umbrella of Sport Ireland, all of which represent elite athletes. Many of those sporting bodies have contacted me to express their concern that their members cannot compete but the GAA has been able to hold matches. The Olympic Games will be held next year and many of those who will be competing are not able to play and compete at this time. That will undoubtedly impact on their preparations for Tokyo in 2021.
Basketball, tennis, athletics, hockey, rugby and other sports feel they are, to use their words, "being shafted". The question of which sports can hold events should not come down to who is the best at lobbying. It should be determined by scientific evidence. The GAA is a great organisation and it has done wonderful work on many levels, including community participation, mental health and sport itself. However, there is a real sense among other sports that the GAA is getting preferential treatment. The Olympian Rob Heffernan recently highlighted that the Government does not consider four athletes who are going to the Olympic Games next year to be elite enough to compete in the world-class facilities we have in this country. How can the Government state that Olympians are not elite and, therefore, cannot compete? Athletics competitions are outdoor and non-contact, yet they are not allowed to go ahead at an elite level. All sports must be treated equally and the Government needs to widen its definition of what is elite.
Athletics events are being run in the North and throughout Europe. Athletes have been travelling throughout Europe and the world to compete. Few, if any, have become sick. Sport Ireland has given a directive that it does not want people travelling, but it is not ensuring that competition and challenges are available for them here. We need to cater for our Olympic athletes at home and not force them abroad. I understand Sport Ireland has issued a decree that any athletes who travel abroad will be penalised. That is really unfair. A recent survey carried out by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations showed that 571,000 athletes and 98,000 officials and staff took part in 787 races and track meetings in that country from 1 July to 4 October, resulting in only one case of someone involved contracting Covid-19 in the following two weeks. An athletics event can be held with fewer than 50 people at a facility at any one time. That would provide qualification opportunities. These are skilled people who conduct events on road tracks and indoor tracks. It only requires approval from Sport Ireland to enable them to do so. An event can be done simply and can provide an opportunity for athletes to qualify for international competition.
I will leave the final words to Feidhlim Kelly:
If the GAA are allowed 30 players on the pitch, you could easily have a race on the road with 30 people, or if you took the top 20 men and women, based on times, have a cross-country race. This is not about athletics versus GAA ... but the best athletes in my group are on that elite level.
All of our elite athletes should be treated equally.
I join Deputy Andrews in wishing everybody who works in the Houses of the Oireachtas a happy Christmas and a peaceful new year. In my other role as Chief Whip, I have seen the dedicated public service and the effort of all the people in the Houses of the Oireachtas to keep our national Parliament operating in the really difficult time of Covid. I want to acknowledge that and I hope everyone gets a break. Like Deputy Andrews, I am looking forward to the all-Ireland finals on Saturday and Sunday. We are all excited about it. I have a split house because both my parents are from Mayo. We are looking forward to the match on Saturday and to the Dublin women's team playing on Sunday.
The Government, through Sport Ireland, is providing every support for our Olympic and Paralympic athletes as they prepare for the Tokyo games next summer. Sport Ireland has given assurance to athletes in the international carding scheme that their funding support will be rolled over into 2021. We have also assured the sporting bodies that funding for high-performance programmes will be maintained at the same level. The return to sport expert group has provided specific guidance to high-performance programmes to facilitate a return to training for athletes since last June. Specific guidance has also been developed in regard to international travel. While the Covid-19 pandemic, regrettably, led to the cancellation of many international events, we were heartened to see Irish athletes win 13 medals in major international competitions during 2020.
The athletes and teams preparing for Tokyo 2021 are currently exempted from public health restrictions on sports training and events. The athletes are continuing to train at the Sport Ireland Campus and other training centres throughout the country. Sport Ireland is also supporting the sporting bodies to organise competitive events for their elite athletes, including the Swim Ireland Irish winter meet currently under way at the National Aquatic Centre. Sport Ireland will continue to work with the Olympic Federation of Ireland, Paralympics Ireland and the performance directors in the national governing bodies of sport to prepare a team Ireland for the Olympic Games. I assure the Deputy that the Government will provide the athletes with all the support they need to achieve their performance targets in Tokyo.
The Government recognises the importance of a broader resumption of sport at the earliest possible date for all involved, especially the children and young people who have been hit so hard by the pandemic restrictions. Sporting organisations, facilities and clubs countrywide have either had to cease or greatly curtail their activities since the middle of March. The position differs from sport to sport depending on, for example, their season or whether they are indoor or outdoor sports. The Government fully understands the difficulties the restrictions have caused. However, those restrictions have been necessary to deal with the threat of Covid-19 as it has presented itself. It is important to note that the Government's resilience and recovery plan does not permit sporting competitions and events to be held at levels 3, 4 and 5, save for a limited number of exemptions. Those exemptions principally apply to professional and high-performance sport. I emphasise that this is applicable to a very small group of athletes and a limited number of competitions and events that are taking place. In each case, events are subject to strict compliance with detailed protocols to minimise the risk of disease transmission.
Under the current level 3 restrictions, the Government has decided that a small number of FAI national underage leagues for young women and men will be permitted to conclude their seasons. My Department has been assured by the FAI that the protocols and control measures applied for training and matches for these teams are equivalent to those applied for the senior teams. My Department is also satisfied that robust compliance structures are in place to ensure adherence to those protocols.
To be helpful to the Deputy, I am pleased to inform him that we have written to all the national governing bodies about trying to tailor specific solutions relevant to their sport in the context of level 3. We recognise that the broader resumption of sport will require tailored solutions for different sports, depending on the risks involved and ensuring we mitigate the impact of Covid.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. A number of athletes have indicated to me that Sport Ireland has issued a decree that if certain athletes travel abroad to take part in competition, which they need to do in preparation for the Olympic Games next year, they will be penalised and some of their funding will be withdrawn. Can the Minister of State provide a clarification that this is, in fact, not the case? Looking at it from an Olympian's perspective, Rob Heffernan has highlighted the situation of a number of athletes who hope to compete next year in the Olympic Games
They see that they cannot compete in their own country with really good facilities and yet we have these elite athletes looking on at 17 and 19-year-olds who are able to play a contact sport and these athletes are excluded. It seems unfair and is something that needs to be addressed and should be as a matter of urgency. More sports should be included in the new provisions. The Minister of State mentioned engagement with the governing bodies but all governing bodies need to be involved, not just the big three, the GAA, soccer and rugby. It is important that everybody is involved and that all sports are treated equally.
I thank the Deputy. Specific guidance, as I said in my initial reply, has been developed for international travel and I referred to a number of the medals that our international athletes have won. We are doing everything to support our athletes who are going to Tokyo. I recognise and accept that the current restrictive regime is a great disappointment for many sports and that they are limited at the present time. To be clear, I have not written to any "big" anything or big three. Every national governing body which engages with Sport Ireland has been written to, each and every one of them, small, big and medium-sized. We want to hear from them all about tailoring solutions and about the broader return to sport and competition. That is the appropriate thing to do so that we can try to maximise the return to sport while also recognising the risk.
We have also seen, for example, where a number of written submissions have been made, looking at all of the available evidence and data for the purpose of informing the development of tailored proposals and approaches for future mitigating measures. It is my objective that such submissions would enable the Government to review and adapt a suite of public health measures currently applying to sport and exercise activities. I anticipate that the issue of resuming competitions and leagues will also form part of that review. The challenge of ensuring the most effective possible preparation for the rescheduled Tokyo games is also a key dimension in this.
We are also looking beyond the Tokyo games and at our athletes who will hopefully be there competing in the Olympics in four years time. We want to see our pathway athletes funded and supported and see them continue to train and participate in this period. We also want to facilitate all of the athletes and young people across our communities who want to get back to some degree of competition. Many of them are currently training. We want to tailor proposals to do what we can with sport in the context of the public health pandemic but also to look at the comparative European and international picture for sport and using that data so that we can maximise the return to sport. That is what I am anxious to deliver and I am happy to work with the Deputy on that issue.