World Champion Michael Conlon is the final Irish boxer out of the Olympics without a medal. He believes it’s a result of corruption. Boxing has never run what you might call an open book on how it makes decisions.
And it has long been a medal banker (16 since 1924) for Team Ireland. Now it’s not, the slack has already been taken up by a couple of rowing brothers from Skibbereen and a heroic woman sailor from Dublin.
Other bright spots include Irish Hockey, which having long subsisted in the shadow of GB put in a great show. Efforts to keep hockey’s best players at home is starting to pay off. Sailing too is moving in the right direction.
But the limitations remain obvious. Northern Irish sailors Ryan Seaton and Matt McGovern had to put out an appeal for funding just to get them to Rio, and are now set to compete in the Men’s 49er medal race.
The fact that Team Ireland is transnational in character should be positive. As one retired Irish athlete put it to Slugger, it usually means NI has more Olympic medals than GB (or indeed Ireland).
It also (in most, if not all cases) facilitates real choice, whether in giving the English-born diver Oliver Dingley a second chance, or an individual opportunity to represent their favoured nation at the very highest level.
Yet there’s gap growing between the increasingly professionalised way that TeamGB hunts new talent then funds and facilitates it, with Ireland’s more ‘have a go’ coaching approach to the development of elite sports.
It’s sobering to think that just twenty years ago Ireland pipped the UK in the overall medal table (albeit courtesy of three swimming golds that have never been properly accounted for).
TeamGB picked up just one Gold that year, so they didn’t take much beating. Yet almost all of GB’s huge success since can be measured from that moment of national humiliation and the resolve which followed.
As we have seen in the more limited example of Irish Rugby, organisation and a scientific and professional approach to recruitment and training can make all the difference to a team’s fortunes.
Ireland’s latent talent base cannot emerge until Irish athletes are enabled to compete on an even playing field. In the UK that’s meant money and commitment (even benefiting the GAA in Northern Ireland).
The length of that commitment shows in a medal table in which Team UK look certain to improve on both their Bejing and London tallies, whilst Ireland looks set to fall from its 2012 high of six.
Ireland cannot conjure facilities on the scale of GB/UK. Arguably 1996 was an aberration on both sides. Denmark is a better comparator. Yet it can and must learn from GB’s tremendous and inspiring example.
The trouble is that Ireland’s never really properly ‘owned’ the Olympics. That may be a result of its many historical conflicts which saw competing bodies run separate teams in the 1948 games.
Fair play to Sport NI for helping to get Seaton and McGovern to Rio in the end, but shouldn’t such cooperation be a matter of policy? Where’s the north-south sports body? And who is calling for such a move?
Pulling like a dog is old Ireland all over. Most of its early athletic success came in throwing heavy weights about the place. Isn’t it time to take sport, and ourselves, more seriously? Time to open minds and the purse.
As one Irish-born Welsh friend put it, science and team working have made British cycling the new German soccer. Time to open Irish minds to new methods, ways of learning and co-operation, and the public purse.