Ireland is somewhat of a recluse in world sporting terms. Long have we punched above our weight in the culturally-charged pursuits of writing, theatre and acting, however, we drastically under-achieve on a consistent basis at most international sporting conventions.
Take the Olympics for example, the most reliable barometer of international sporting proficiency. A team representing Ireland has competed at the games since 1924. In that time we have only ever managed to bring home more than five medals once, with a calculated total of 31 medals. Hell, Michael Phelps and his 28 medals would surely eclipse Ireland’s entire Olympic achievement if he stayed in the pool for the next four years.
In Rio, Ireland’s Olympic endeavours amounted to a grand total of two medals, neither of them gold. That is not meant to belittle the titan achievements of Annalise Murphy or the O’Donovan brothers, who performed excellently. There is no shying away from the fact that Ireland can and should be doing better on the world stage. Our Olympic output works out at a ratio of one medal per 2.25m people. The UK, by way of example, achieved 67 medals, a ratio of one to around 900,000 inhabitants.
Conversely, Ireland’s football team acquitted themselves quite well at Euro 2016 in France this summer. That being said, the fact that we reached the last 16 was more down to changes in the structure of the tournament, with three teams progressing out of our group as opposed to the more common norm of two. When it comes to international tournaments, our footballers usually stay home or exit at the earliest possible stage – and not out of home-sickness.
So is all of this sporting under-achievement attributable to our young people focusing too intently on hurling and Gaelic football from a young age? Possibly, but the problems are much more multi-faceted and layered than just that. This is not just a problem with the GAA; it is a question of funding, education and organisation.
Funding is a massive issue here. Take Great Britain’s cycling team for example – they had a budget of 30.2 million GBP for Rio 2016. This contrasts dramatically with the €1.7 million the Olympic Council of Ireland received from the state in the period 2012-2016. And let’s not mention Pat Hickey. If Ireland wants to win big on the international stage, a hell of a lot more funding would need to be made available to organisations like Irish Athletic Boxing. Amateur athletes need every bit of financial support the state can provide.
Let us examine the GAA’s supposed role in limiting Ireland’s success on the world sporting stage. The GAA is an Irish organisation. Consequently, it is the most poorly organised association in the western hemisphere, save perhaps the HSE. It is true to say that if the GAA didn’t exist children would gravitate more towards cycling, equestrianism and boxing. These are all sports Irish people have traditionally excelled at, provided the judges haven’t been paid off, mind you.
As one of our most treasured possessions, the GAA need not be abolished. It is, however, in need of a dramatic structural overhaul. There is also a traditionalist culture within the GAA that needs to be extinguished rapidly.
Perhaps if the GAA was better organised, young kids would have the opportunity to take up a second sport. In many ways, the system as it exists resembles a jealous lover. Anyone who has ever gone out with a hurler, camogie player or footballer knows how it takes precedence over all aspects of a young person’s life. In Galway for example, club fixtures are only released five days before a round of games. With a year-round championship, life planning is impossible. This constant limbo of waiting for a game, coupled with the increasing professionalism that it now promotes, the GAA asks everything of its players while offering very little in return.
In my home parish of Castlegar, our junior hurlers have been training since January. They have played a grand total of four championship matches in the last nine months, due to scheduling conflicts, clubs refusing to field teams, delaying fixtures and so on. If the fixtures were set out in stone at the beginning of the year, and ran week-to-week concurrently, there is no reason that the club championship could not be run off in the three months of summer. This would leave hurlers free to take up soccer or rugby for the winter months, and maybe Ireland’s international sporting situation would improve.
It is impossible for young men and women to take up second sports thanks to the dreadful organisation of the GAA, in Galway at least. Since the local hurling or football team is usually the lifeblood of most rural communities, young folk usually gravitate towards the GAA.
Perhaps the GAA is a contributory factor in explaining why Ireland unfailingly under-performs on the world stage or maybe it’s a financial matter, we would have to commission a gritty TV3 documentary to find out for sure. What do you think? Tweet your thoughts to @SIN_News.
-By Eoin Molloy
Image from Flickr