Dáil debates

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Olympic Games

11:35 pm

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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The Tokyo Olympics commence on 23 July, which is in a couple of weeks, with 103 Irish athletes setting sail today. I believe the Minister of State was part of the team sending them off and well done to her for doing it. We wish them every success. It is Team Ireland and we hope they do us proud.

One sport will not be represented at the games. Despite securing qualification in June 2019 at an event in Germany, the Irish dressage team will not send a team to compete. The team qualified but for various reasons the original team members could not partake in the games after they were delayed. Rather than sending a replacement team, Horse Sport Ireland and the coach decided to send no team at all. It is not that the team did not want or was not able to go but it was prevented from going, which is a real travesty.

We know what this sport can give all of us as a nation when we get behind the flag. The Irish football team gave us much joy and success over many years and decades, even when it did not qualify for international tournaments. Katie Taylor has done us proud on many occasions in the boxing ring, as have many other boxers. Annalise Murphy did much for the sport of sailing when she qualified in 2012 and secured a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics. It is a sport, no more than dressage, that enjoyed an elevated status because of her success.

A sport also gets a lift from participation. Tennis clubs around the country report great interest during the Wimbledon tournament every year and a sport in the spotlight showcases talents and abilities. People watch and follow it, taking an interest. Dressage is a small sport at national level but it is very important, with a cohort of committed participants. It is also a sport that is very inclusive and both my daughters ride dressage. They reminded me on the way up this evening that it is a gender-neutral sport because there is no separate class for men and women. Both compete at the same levels and classes. It is also a sport where people of all ages can compete. It is accessible and disability-friendly, with many riders participating despite having disabilities.

This was a chance to showcase Irish sport, horses and riders across the world. As a Kildare representative, I am acutely aware of the importance of the horse industry to Ireland and Kildare, which is its heart. The participants are important but the industry is vital for related industries, including breeders, farmers, trainers, farriers and other suppliers.

The whole mix is contingent on international success. This is a team that qualified. After 32 years of trying we got a place there. We had secured our place and had our pass. Yet, the plane left today with those empty seats because of a decision that I am still struggling to comprehend, which was not to send the team and not to send a replacement team. There are all kinds of question marks around that decision and I might come back to this in replies.

Ultimately, Ireland qualified and had a place and we decided not to send the alternative team. The decision was announced on the day of the deadline and it was too late to turn it around. I am told that the coach is based in California and has been selecting participants by Zoom calls. A standard had been set of 68% criteria, but 66% is the international normal metric. There are many questions that surround that process. The bottom line is that there are three empty seats in the Tokyo Olympics. When the eyes of the world turn to the dressage arena during those games there will be no Irish flag in the arena. That is a crying shame for Irish participants, for dressage riders and for Ireland. It is too late unfortunately because the team has gone. I really believe that this needs to be followed up and investigated as to why this was allowed to happen, and to prevent any recurrence.

11:45 pm

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. I fully understand and acknowledge the disappointment of Dressage Ireland and individual riders at the decision not to send a dressage team to the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

I know that it is very frustrating for those riders who had secured a place at the Olympics to accept the decision that was made by Horse Sport Ireland not to send a team. I absolutely acknowledge how difficult this has been for those individual riders, as the Deputy has outlined.

My role and the role of my Department is in developing policy for sport. The national governing bodies, NGBs, develop and deliver their sport, working with their club networks, affiliates and sponsors. This includes the effective operation of their sport, hosting, sanctioning and delivery of events, and the selection of teams for international competition. I do not have a role in these operational matters of NGBs and it would not be correct for me to get involved in such matters. The situation that has arisen in this case is that an Olympic place had been secured by dressage riders but Horse Sport Ireland made a decision not to send a team. The decision of the NGB has been made and the appeals processes has been outlined also. That is entirely a matter for Horse Sport Ireland and it is important that I respect their autonomy in this matter.

The selection process for all Olympic athletes and teams is managed through the national governing bodies of sport and the Olympic Federation of Ireland. The relevant national governing body for equestrian sport is Horse Sport Ireland. As part of the process, the national governing bodies agree a comprehensive selection policy with the Olympic Federation of Ireland in advance of the games. Neither I nor Sport Ireland has any role in the Olympic team selection process. All national governing bodies of sport, including Horse Sport Ireland, are independent autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own governance procedures, competition rules for their sports and team selection procedures.

I understand that the decision of Horse Sport Ireland not to select a dressage team was appealed through Horse Sport Ireland's internal process and through an independent dispute resolution mechanism and that the decision of Horse Sport Ireland was upheld in both instances. It would be inappropriate for me to intervene in any individual dispute regarding team selection or to comment on whether any individual sport is or is not represented at the games. The Minister with responsibility for sport of the day coming in and picking a team for a sporting event more broadly could be problematic for obvious reasons. Nor would it be appropriate for the Minister of the day to intervene in controversial rule changes that may take place from time to time.

Last week, the Olympic Federation of Ireland announced the equestrian team to represent Ireland in Tokyo. Ireland will be represented by one individual dressage rider, Heike Holstein. Heike has previously represented Ireland at three Olympic Games as an individual. I wish her and all of the other members of the equestrian team every success at the games and I am sure that they will do their sport and Ireland proud.

The Deputy will be aware that the Olympic Games commence on 23 July with the Paralympic Games following on from 24 August. Currently, 103 athletes have qualified for the Olympic Games, with 26 slots qualified for the Paralympic Games. This will be Ireland's largest ever team at the games. This will be an unusual Olympics as the events will be taking place with no spectators, due to the latest state of emergency announced in Tokyo. Many of our athletes have already arrived in Japan and the vast majority - over 90% - of the Irish team, including support staff, will be vaccinated before travelling. This is an exciting team for all our athletes heading to Tokyo. While these Olympic and Paralympic Games might be different from what we are used to, I know that every member of Team Ireland will give their absolute best. I hope that they will all enjoy the experience and I have no doubt that they will do Ireland proud and will be excellent ambassadors for our country at the games.

I would like to take the opportunity to inform the House that the Sport Ireland high performance strategy was launched on the 24 of June. This strategy defines Ireland's high performance ambitions for the next decade. It spans three Olympiads, out to 2032.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. I listened with interest to his reply. This is a taxpayer-funded sport, and certainly the governing body is taxpayer funded. The selection process and the Olympic Games delegation would receive similar taxpayer funding. The coach, who is a resident of California I am told, is taxpayer funded. I am not sure how appropriate it is for someone who has not set foot in the State for 18 months to be selecting a team where the nominations closed a few weeks ago. I also appreciate that the Minister of State cannot pick the teams, but perhaps the Minister of State could have mandated that a team be sent, provided that the team met certain criteria, which I am told they had. I would not expect any Government Minister or official to get involved in the who or what within that. Not sending a team at all, however, is outrageous and is a national scandal. The Minister of State was quite correct that Heike Holstein will be competing at individual level and I wish her every success. Ms Holstein is an accomplished rider and would have been part of the team had the whole team been able to be sent and had there been a team entry, which there is not.

I do not want to get into apportioning blame but I must ask a number of questions that have been put to me about the appeals process. I have already highlighted that the coach is overseas. The decision appears to have been made on the final day and when it was announced it was almost too late to appeal. There were a couple of appeals, one of which was given only partial information. One of the riders, James Connor was not apparently informed that having already engaged with Horse Sport Ireland prior to that he had actually secured Olympic accreditation. This may have influenced the decision. A number of questions have to be asked.

There is another point to be made, which I appreciate might be hearsay but it came out in the appeals process that a phrase was used where the back-up team were described as opportunistic. I am quite shocked that would be thrown out as some kind of apparently derogatory term. Anybody in sport, in life, in politics and in business should be opportunistic. It is called ambition. We had a by-election candidate, a fine new Teachta Dála, Deputy Bacik, elected into this House today because another Member had stood aside and created a vacancy. That is what is done to succeed, stepping forward when the door opens and taking the chance. Our riders tried to do that in this case but were prevented from doing that. It is outrageous to dismiss them for having the temerity to try to represent their country.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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As I said in my initial remarks I accept and acknowledge that it is very frustrating for the riders who had secured a place to accept the decision made by Horse Sport Ireland and how difficult that is. The role specific to national governing bodies is that they deliver and develop their sport, working with their club networks, affiliates and partners. Obviously, that involves structures and rules, selection policies and performance targets.

On the Olympic Games, the selection process is managed directly through the national governing bodies of sport, with the Olympic Federation of Ireland. That is a comprehensive selection policy developed prior to the games. Each national governing body is an independent and autonomous body responsible for their own governance, procedures, competition rules for their sport and team selection procedures. I understand that the decision of Horse Sport Ireland was appealed through their own processes, and externally appealed through the independent dispute resolution mechanism. That underpins any decision made by the relevant national governing body.

The Deputy might have specific issues, as he referenced, with how that operated. It would then be a matter for the riders themselves to present particular information to Horse Sport Ireland. Obviously there are independent mechanisms they have tried to avail of regarding their own specific appeal. As the Deputy has acknowledged, it would be inappropriate for me to intervene in any individual dispute regarding team selection or to decide who should and should not be represented specifically at the games.

The Dáil adjourned at at 11.50 p.m. until 9.15 a.m. on Wednesday, 14 July 2021.