Seanad debates

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

6:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for accepting this matter for discussion on the Adjournment, as well as for your courtesy during the lifetime of the current Seanad. I believe this is probably the last hurrah in that respect. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate him on his elevation to ministerial office. I wish him great success in his portfolio. I know that he is very capable of handling the many issues that will come before him in the years ahead.

While he is not the Minister responsible for this subject matter, I know he has an interest in sport and fair play. The Department of Finance has an interest in ensuring that best use is made of public money and I will declare a few interests in this respect. First, I chaired the committee that produced this report entitled "The Olympics - from Athens to London". Second, I am currently president of the Council of Europe's youth and sport committee. While there seems to be a question mark over the precedent which meant that people could stay on that committee after the elections, I hope I will get a chance to remain on it until June at least because I am currently involved in compiling a report on organised crime in sport, including the issue of match fixing. The latter issue is an integral one to be resolved by sports governance, which is why I am raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am interested in what has progressed since November 2005 when we examined Ireland's record in Athens. We deliberately did not examine the progress made between Athens and Beijing because there was not enough time to address the problems within the sports sector at that stage. When London was awarded the 2012 Olympics we were excited that Ireland would be a major beneficiary of those games, not just regarding our participation and getting more people interested in sport due to the proximity of the London games, but also regarding a spin-off through having our own sports facilities used for pre-Olympic training.

The issues I dealt with then and those I have been dealing with now have overlapped. I acknowledge the role of Irish Olympic Council president, Mr. Pat Hickey, who attended a conference with me which was organised by the International Olympic Committee on 1 March this year. It was to have dealt solely with integrity in sport, but it also tackled the issue of irregular betting and gambling on sporting events. The IOC was concerned that the 2012 games may not be free and fair due to being impacted by organised crime in the form of spread betting. That may be something that comes under the Minister of State's remit when his Department examines legislation on gambling, including internet betting.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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It does, actually.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I have a lot of interest in and information on those matters. We must not underestimate the fact that 85% to 90% of sports in Asia are corrupt. In addition, they are being corrupted by people who have no interest in sport. They are only interested in making money from sport through spread betting and Internet gambling, which is their core focus.

I am seeking an update on what the Irish Sports Council has been doing concerning the international carding system. Athletes must have access to the required support from the Olympic Council of Ireland. In 2005, our report made 19 recommendations and I would like to think that some of them have been acted upon. We have seen Ireland progress from a position where prior to the Athens games we had, to put it crudely, horses on the wrong grass. We also had Olympic swimming medals that were badly tarnished. We all want to see the maximum number of participants in sports. Next year will be a great opportunity to get more people interested in sporting pursuits, but they will be looking for role models. In 2005, I drew up a questionnaire for athletes asking a number of questions, and they replied that it was the first time their opinions had been sought. As regards future strategies, while sports associations and federations have a role they must be seen to represent people on the ground. The most important aspect is how athletes are treated both before, during and after international sporting events. They require such support.

The key questions I have for the Aire Stáit are whether we have we progressed, whether the 19 recommendations been implemented, and to ask him to outline the state of play less than a year from the 2012 Olympics. Will Ireland's athletes be properly supported? Will the games be fair so that our children can watch and aspire to be at the subsequent games?

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Keaveney for raising this matter on the Adjournment. I apologise for the fact that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, unfortunately cannot attend the House this evening to reply to the Senator. I know of her interest in this issue because we have spoken about it in the past. I will ensure that her comments are brought to the attention of the Minister.

The Irish Sports Council, which is funded by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, is statutorily responsible for the development of high performance sport in Ireland. Since its establishment in 1999, more than €421 million has been provided to the council towards initiating, developing and enhancing a wide range of programmes aimed at raising standards in Irish sport and also towards increasing participation at all levels.

The existing high performance system has developed following a series of independent reviews commissioned by the Irish Sports Council following the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Since 2004, the council has invested significantly in high performance sport through the international carding scheme and the high-performance plans of 18 focus sports, which have the potential to deliver at the highest levels of international competition. This includes not only focusing and investing in the current generation of world class athletes, but also developing junior talent through a structured competition pathway from schools through to world level.

The Irish Institute of Sport was established following the Athens review which was carried out after the 2004 games. The establishment of an institute of sport was also one of the key recommendations of the joint committee's report. The institute, which operates at the national sports campus at Abbotstown, plays a key role in the Irish high-performance system through the co-ordination and delivery of technical services.

In February this year, the Irish Sports Council announced that €7.8 million would be invested in high-performance sports in 2011. The council has made a decision to maintain funding at the 2010 levels as the coming year is the vital preparation and qualification one for London 2012. Almost €6 million is being provided to the national governing bodies of the 18 focus sports for their high performance plans. In addition, 115 athletes and two teams will receive over €1.95 million under the carding scheme this year.

The high performance plans are funded on an annual basis and continue to be developed in a detailed way with the focus sports. As the performance planning process will take a longer term focus, each governing body is required to consider a whole-sport approach to planning. While there is a need to support the London Olympic cycle, the sports council will continue on its path of long-term programme delivery, thus ensuring maximum return from the opportunities provided by London 2012, but also looking forward to the games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The aim is to provide a legacy in high-performance sport.

In 2009, a new high-performance committee - chaired by the former world champion runner, Eamonn Coghlan - was established to oversee the investment of the Irish Sports Council in elite sport. The committee includes representatives from all major sports agencies, including the Olympic Council of Ireland. This is one of the clearest public demonstrations of the operational co-operation between all relevant agencies in Irish sport.

One of the central elements of the high-performance system for the London 2012 games is an operational plan with the Olympic council. In addition, funding to the Olympic Council of Ireland and Paralympics Ireland ensures that Irish teams have the best possible support.

The high performance support system, both financial and otherwise, that now exists for our elite athletes is reflected in Irish athletes' success at international level in recent years. In 2010, Ireland won 31 medals at international championship level across the various disciplines supported by the ISC. This is compared to ten medals won at international level in 2006. Sport is not just about high performance and the Government is committed to promoting greater participation in sport at all levels.

The ISC provides funding and other resources to the national governing bodies of sport and local sports partnerships with a specific emphasis on increasing levels of participation in sport and physical activity. The joint committee's 2005 report also highlighted the potential benefits to Ireland arising from the geographical proximity of the London 2012 games. A high level co-ordinating group, chaired by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, is identifying opportunities across the sports, tourism and cultural sectors, from the London games. The group comprises representatives from the ISC, the Olympic Council of Ireland and many other organisations.

The group's discussions will take into account the current economic situation and the findings of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic task force report, which was published in 2009. The report made a number of recommendations arising from an audit carried out of high quality sports facilities in Ireland and the findings of a report by Indecon International Economic Consultants on the economic evaluation of the benefit to the island of Ireland of the London games. The Indecon report concluded that the largest potential benefits of the London 2012 Olympic Games were on the business side and Enterprise Ireland is actively pursuing opportunities for Irish business.

The decision of both the American Olympic synchronized swimming squad and the Great Britain Paralympic swimming squad to choose the National Aquatic Centre at Abbotstown as a pre-London 2012 training base is a reflection of the calibre of the facility. It was also announced earlier that the Hungarian and UK water polo teams will play and train in the National Aquatic Centre in June. A number of other sports facilities such as University College Dublin and the University of Limerick are also directly promoting their own facilities to try and attract international teams and athletes. In addition, the Department has produced a CD which contains the details of a number of Irish elite sports facilities which are suitable as pre-London training camps. This CD has been circulated widely.

The potential to attract international teams and athletes to train in Ireland in the lead up to the London games is just one of the issues that the co-ordinating group is examining. The Indecon report considered that the second largest potential benefits from the London games lay on the tourism side and the tourism agencies, in conjunction with the London 2012 co-ordinating group, are exploring a range of possible initiatives to maximise this potential. The Arts Council and Culture Ireland are also developing proposals for a cultural programme, which would include participation in the four-year Cultural Olympiad.

The high level co-ordinating group will meet on an ongoing basis to maximise opportunities and this will influence the benefits to Ireland. I have outlined to the House the improved high performance sport structures that have been developed since the publication of the Oireachtas joint committee's 2005 report. I am confident that Ireland can continue to deliver finalists and medal winners at European, world, Olympic and Paralympic level. As we approach the London 2012 games, the ISC is committed to ensuring the best supports are available for our elite athletes from the junior ranks to our world class level. Efforts are also under way to capture the economic benefits from the London games.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to highlight the progress made since the joint committee published its report in 2005.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the progress in getting teams on the ground. I was a little scared by the comment that cultural programmes would be put in place for a four-year Cultural Olympiad. The year before the Olympics is probably more important and the focus has been on London for the past few years. Will the Minister of State keep asking about progress on this issue? There is massive potential in this area and it should be not allowed to slide. That is why we wrote the report in 2005, seven years before 2012.

I ask the Minister of State, in conjunction with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, to take seriously the protection of the integrity of sports and, in particular, the challenges presented by spread betting and the interference that can be created in this regard. It cannot be under estimated. Four people are before the courts in Germany for fixing 300 matches. If they are convicted, another 150 people will be prosecuted. Every sport in Ireland and Europe is exposed to this challenge. Not only should we be aware of it, we should support the concept of an international agency such as the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, to address it. If we do not, there will be a crisis in sport and future Olympic Games will not matter because nobody will take them seriously and no one will want to participate in or be associated with them.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I am grateful for my time in the Seanad. I have enjoyed taking on issues such as this and bringing them from concept to implementation. I may have made a little progress. It may not be significant in the scheme of life or in the eyes of the media but it is important to those involved at grassroots level.