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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 23 May, 2019
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Column: Why are Ireland's top athletes struggling to make ends meet?

Olympic hopeful Ciarán Ó Lionáird is one of many Irish athletes under financial pressure. It’s not easy, but nothing can stop him from reaching his goal in London this summer, he writes.

Ciarán Ó Lionáird

The Martin Fagan doping controversy has cast a light on the difficult financial circumstances which a number of Ireland’s top athletes find themselves in, among other issues.

Here, world 1500m finalist Ciarán Ó Lionáird gives us an insight into the sacrifices demanded of an Irish Olympian, and tells us how none of it will stop him reaching his goal in London this summer.

AS WE PROGRESS through the early stages of 2012, Olympic fever naturally tends to present itself alongside the mainstream sports and the performances, backgrounds and lifestyles of elite athletes vying to compete and excel in London come under the spotlight.

Given the financial state of our country and the tendency for the plight of the working person to dominate headlines, it is no surprise that these two should overlap and the funding of our elite athletes be analysed by the media and the Irish people.

As an athlete qualified for London, I felt it apt to give an impression of my own current situation and how Irish Sports Council funding is needed in my preparation for the Games.

I am a 1500 metre runner from Macroom, County Cork. Having finished 10th in the World Championships last year out of college, I joined the Nike Oregon Project Elite group under New York and Boston Marathon Winner, coach Alberto Salazar.

I train alongside four other athletes in the group: Mo Farah of Great Britain, world champion over 5000m; world 1500m bronze medallist, Matt Centrowitz; and American record holders Dathan Ritzenhein and Galen Rupp. We base ourselves primarily at Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon and have access to world-class facilities and equipment.

In my opinion, it is the best training group in the world and I’m hoping it can propel me to a new level and put me in real contention for a medal in London. Right now, training is going great. I’m way ahead of where I was in 2011, and I’m optimistic as I knock out the miles up in our altitude base camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Often, I find myself stressing over bills which can be a distraction”

I was lucky to get the invite to be a part of this group. However, because the “Oregon Project” was set up to help elevate the standards of US distance running, foreign athletes in the group are required to cover cost of certain things.

Physio and massage, for example, are necessary. Living expenses such as room, board and health insurance are not covered. These are absolutely essential for an elite athlete, especially one with an injury history like myself (from 2005-2011, I suffered a season-ending injury effectively every year).

The Sports Council grant is essential in helping me cover the cost of training with the very best athletes in the world. However, in the year 2012, a grant of €20,000 just cannot stretch far enough to cover expenses. I’m thankful that Nike supports me outside of this, otherwise I simply would not be able to prepare for London in a manner necessary to contend for a medal.

Even with that, finances can become a stress. Often, I find myself stressing over bills which can distract from the focus on training and recovery. When you compare my situation to certain 1500 metre runners from the UK, who did not even make it to the World Championships yet still receive “podium level” funding that is three times what I get, it is easy to become frustrated with the system.

“It’s fired me up and motivated me to work hard to get myself to that next level”

I have gotten discouraged at times in my preparation for London, yet I realize that the Sports Council does have a limited budget, and that injury and illness to our top athletes can create situations that go beyond the black and white criteria of funding tiers.

I have pled my case, but my performance at last year’s World Championships was deemed insufficient proof that I deserve of a “podium” grant of €40,000. For me, personally, that was a financial blow and one that forces me to be really careful with my finances.

There are positives surrounding that decision however. It’s fired me up and motivated me to work hard to get myself to that next level. I’m sure it will keep me honest and it will certainly remove any sense of entitlement.

I made it to 10th in the world as a college student, with a college budget. My grant may put me at a disadvantage compared to my peers from other countries, but that didn’t deter me in 2011, and it won’t this year.

The decision has also spurred me to seek out other opportunities for sponsorship. I believe that athletes in smaller sports must work twice as hard to market themselves and prove their worth in a competitive environment in order to gain sponsorship.

This past week, I’ve started engaging Irish fans through my Twitter account (@mad_len) and website (www.mad-len.com). I flirted with the idea of a Paypal donation button, from which I received extremely positive feedback.

However, with the indoor racing season 10 days away, I felt I couldn’t give the time presently to setting up the infrastructure around a donation system. It is certainly something worth revisiting. For now, my time will be spent training hard here at altitude, grinding out the 100-mile weeks, the lung-busting track sessions and the grueling weight routines that I know will make a big difference come August.

“It’s time to show what it really means to be Irish”

I firmly believe that I’m training with the best team in the world at the Nike Oregon Project. Although I may have taken a financial hit by joining the group, one cannot put a price on an Olympic medal, and that’s most definitely my goal. In addition, I’ll be targeting Irish companies that share my ambition and I’m optimistic I can establish some relationships that will benefit all involved.

Regardless, I’m glad that in drawing attention to the needs of elite athletes, other young aspiring Olympians can also find ways to market themselves and make the public more aware of the sacrifices one makes for those few minutes of glory on the Olympic stage.

Forget the negative news. It’s time to show what it really means to be Irish, the character and the fight that has so defined us as a nation. There’s no better place to do it than on the world stage at London 2012.

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About the author:

Ciarán Ó Lionáird

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