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'Could you manage for a year on €12,000? Probably not. So why are we expecting elite-level athletes to do it?'

Derval O’Rourke has called for a ‘full review’ into the funding system in Irish sport.

Former sprint hurdles athlete Derval O'Rourke competed at three Olympic Games.
Former sprint hurdles athlete Derval O'Rourke competed at three Olympic Games.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Updated May 13th 2021, 12:21 PM

ON MONDAY, it was announced that state funding for female GAA players would treble to €2.4 million this year.

It now means that both male and female players are set to each receive €1,200 from the state.

On the one hand, the move has received much praise, as a positive step towards equality between male and female athletes.

However, it has also opened up a wider discussion about funding in Ireland and the relatively meagre assistance some sports receive in contrast with the GAA.

In an Irish Examiner column following the news, in an article entitled ‘As GPA achieve grant equality, other second-class athletes can’t be ignored,’ Kieran Shannon noted that: “67% of all government grants to Irish athletes will be allocated to GAA county players, male or female.”

Despite a very successful career that included three Olympic Games appearances, a gold medal at the World Indoor Championships and two silvers at the European Championships, funding, or lack thereof, was a continual source of frustration for Derval O’Rourke during more than a decade of competing in high-level sport.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the mixed reception that has greeted Minister Jack Chambers’ announcement earlier this week is reflected in the Cork native’s own feelings on the matter.

“First of all, the GPA, as an organisation, do an incredible job advocating for their players and you’d have to admire that,” she says.

“The fact that they have now tried to equalise male and female support, it’s really important, I’m the first person that will bang the drum for female support.

“I suppose you’d wonder why it’s taken this long in many senses, I know when we give our grants to other sports, we certainly don’t divide it up between male and female.

“Then I guess it opens up that other side of the debate regarding all the other sports.

“Comparing track or Olympic sports with GAA, it’s so hard. I had years of being a professional Olympic track athlete, but I have small kids now and I see when my daughter plays camogie, what a difference that makes community-wise, so I’m under no illusions as to how important GAA is.

“Whereas when I was competing, I’d say my understanding of the importance of the GAA at community and participation level wasn’t as good as it is now, and I would have argued more for the other sports.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t argue for the other sports now, but what I’m saying is, if you are Jack Chambers and you make that decision, where’s the big-picture thinking, what’s your end game?

“I would never take away from females having equal support, but if you’re the minister and are ring-fencing that money into GAA, an incredible sport that does an incredible amount for Irish people, what are you doing then for the other sports? Because the big thing in his statement was equality of treatment and I was looking at Twitter last night and people were asking: ‘Where’s the equality for other sports?’

“That’s an interesting point and you would love to have information on what is the big-picture thinking. Are you putting that money aside because strategy-wise it’s about participation, or because of elite sport?

“And if it’s about elite sport, then there’s a big discussion to be had, if it’s about participation, you can’t argue with what the GAA do.

“So I think it’s really hard, I do, honestly.

“I was talking to my husband a few minutes ago and he went to two Olympics in what is a very niche sport in this country, sailing, and he said straight away to me that you can’t argue with what happens on a Saturday when those kids are playing camogie.

“And you can’t, but if you put the same level of support around other sports, would you have the same participation levels?

“Fair play to the GPA for getting it over the line, major win for them, very impressive. If I was the other sports and working for them, which I absolutely am not, I’d be going: ‘Okay, how do we advocate for more money, how do we support our athletes, is it okay that we’re sending our athletes to the Olympics with minimal funding, minimal support?’

“I don’t know who said it on Twitter: ‘If they were on the dole, would they be better off?’ Are we happy with that as a nation? Instead of not saying it, come out with your strategy. Don’t just come out with throwing some money at something and looking for positive headlines. Come out and say: ‘I am putting the money into this because this is my strategy.’ 

student-enterprise-programme-jpg Derval O’Rourke was speaking ahead of the Student Enterprise Programme National Finals. Source: GERARD McCARTHY 087 8537228

When it was put to her that injecting money into the top level is not especially relevant to participation aside from the knowledge that you could get some support eventually, O’Rourke added: “I would always struggle to compare playing in top-level GAA to participating in an Olympic Games. You can’t compare it. I’m not saying it’s not extremely impressive and it’s easy. Of course, it’s not, but it’s absolutely not the same thing. 

“Maybe in some ways this happening has opened up the debate on funding because I tried to go to the Olympics in 2000 and didn’t make the team. I was on a relay that tried to qualify and I believe at that time that international funding was at €12,000. Now we are in 2021 and I believe it is still €12,000. I believe the next level up if you are winning medals is €20,000 and if you are a world champion level, you are €40,000. 

“If we are talking about approaching things differently and equality of treatment, then let’s look at how we approach all of the funding in sport. Where is it going? Why is it going there? What is the thinking? If you are an athlete getting €12,000, you are almost considered one of the lucky ones. 

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“Could you manage your life for a year on €12,000? And perform at the absolute highest level in your job? Probably not. So why are we expecting elite-level athletes to do it? I don’t know, is the answer.

“There is a lot in the funding space that didn’t make sense to me in 2000 when I was doing my Leaving Cert and trying to qualify for Sydney. And in 2021, after I have gone to three Olympic Games, it still doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.

“I went to the Athens Olympics and I was considered lucky because I was on €12,000 the year before it. But I came home from the Games and I got a telesales job part-time and I was trying to finish a Masters or postgrad and trying to train full-time. 

“Yes, the Olympics and international sport is the dream, but there is a massive financial consequence to that. So you can’t compare it to GAA players and it isn’t as simple as saying should we take it from there and give it to international athletes. That would be really unfair and I hate when we pitch the GAA against other sports because I think it’s not comparable, but I think there’s an ultimate pot of money. Where does it go? What are our goals here as a nation? What are we doing? I’ve my own business, I don’t spend any money without knowing what the end game is.”

And on the topic of the rewards system where Olympic-level athletes receive funding only after they have made a significant impact in their sport, O’Rourke said: “A lot of the Olympic sports are the same and we underestimate the impact of the likes of basketball, hockey, track and field, gymnastics on females. I know, because I see my daughter when she sees those sports and it’s completely different to the fact that rugby and soccer are on every single weekend around the clock.

“If you want someone to prepare for an Olympic Games, giving them a few quid eight weeks out is somewhat irrelevant. Now it’s good that it’s done if it’s done because that person is probably pretty broke at that point.

“I would say the biggest stress through my track career was negotiating funding, trying to justify why I should be funded, the amount I was funded, yet that’s really hard to say when you’re in it because you’re really worried like you’re going to sound ungrateful and I was never, ever ungrateful for a penny I got.

“But I felt like I paid back that investment quite a few times over, in terms of what I did, in terms of visibility and I got to a level where I was winning medals and some championships.

“So an example is Sarah Quinn. She’s up there in the west of Ireland with a team who came home with a really good position at world relays, a really new event and you can see how much that meant to her local community. That’s visibility and that’s really important.

“I wish they would get people in the room that experienced it and I wish they would take those opinions on board and I wish it would be very practical: ‘Sit down and go: ‘What’s the cost of living? Where are the gaps here?’

“I look at the likes of myself, Rob Heffernan, David Gillick, athletes who were doing well in my era and we were of a certain mindset. But I don’t think everybody needs to be like we were. I think we are losing people all the time because it is so difficult to make it work.

“And the fact that it has stayed the same since 2000, imagine if you worked somewhere and the wages had stayed the same from when you started out in school to now — it would be crazy stuff, it would never happen. So I would love a full review of it.”

Derval O’Rourke was speaking ahead of the Student Enterprise Programme National Finals on Friday 14th May.  O’Rourke is an ambassador for the Local Enterprise Office initiative which is the largest student entrepreneurship programme in the country with 30,000 students taking part every year and over 250,000 involved since it began in 2003.  The Finals will be broadcast live on Friday on www.StudentEnterprise.ie   

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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