Fund sport properly – then let’s talk alcohol

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Two days ago, a beaming Davy Russell clambered onto the podium in the winners’ enclosure at Punchestown and had his snap taken as he pretended to take a great, big glug out of the oversized tankard that comes with victory in the Gold Cup.

From the Irish Examiner

By Brendan O’Brien on Friday, April 26, 2013

It brought a neat end to one of those delightful little subplots which sport writes so well given the Youghal jockey had missed out on half of Cheltenham as well as the Grand National festival at Aintree this year due to a lung injury he picked up round about Cleeve Hill last month and which is still preventing him from riding in the UK.

If anyone had any objections to him using the trophy in such a manner then nobody said as much but, as someone who has covered Gaelic games among a plethora of other sports for over a decade now, the first thought was that he would have found himself in a whole heap of controversy had he done much the same on the steps of the Hogan Stand.

Make no mistake about it, standards are served as doubles when it comes to sport and alcohol and the GAA has been well within its rights in pointing out as much this last decade or so as the broader debate over the ethics of what is seen as an unholy alliance between healthy and not-so-healthy pastimes has more of often than not been held in their parish whether they liked it or not.

A clear sense of victimisation has been evident from the entire sports industry for some time now, in fact, and the belief that it is an easy target has been supported by Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport who has warned against legislative steps being pursued for optical purposes.

For every Varadkar, however, there is an Alex White, the junior minister with responsibility for alcohol abuse who has declared his intention to implement the findings of a recent National Substance Misuse Strategy Steering Group advocating that alcohol sponsorship be phased out of all public events, sporting or otherwise, by 2016.

The latest round in this heavyweight contest was fought out in the Oireachtas on Wednesday when a committee established to examine this issue listened for the last time as officials from the sports and drinks industry pleaded their case against such a policy.

Eamon Coghlan warned at one point that sport is being “hung out to dry” and it is no surprise the sector in general has come out to bat so boldly for a valued source of revenue, especially in these straitened times when every cent spent is scrutinised to increasing degrees before being committed to the debit side of the ledger.

The only concrete fact in this whole debate is that there are no concrete facts. How can there be when there is still no incontestable method of recording the effect which advertising has on people? Or when the advertising of alcohol is just one in a king-sized bed of thorns that covers everything from social conditions to economic trends, price strategies and simple trends and taste.

Boil it all down, however, and there is one very simple question to be answered here: would it be preferable if people could attend sporting events without being bombarded with images and words that are designed to make us drink alcohol?

Of course it would. Will it happen? Not today or tomorrow but the wind seems to be blowing in the faces of those manning the barricades and Prof Joe Barry of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland said as much recently when he predicted sponsorship by drinks companies would be met with a ’how-could-they’ shake of the head in as little as 15 years’ time. If that is to be the case then sport should at the very least call the bluff of those calling for change. If alcohol and sport are to be torn apart like lovers in an old war movie then the case is rock solid for a complete ban on all forms of drink advertising. After all, what is the difference between a 15-year-old seeing a pint plastered on a bus shelter and a stadium scoreboard?

If all this really isn’t just about optics then our governments should cease paying lip service to a sports sector which pollinates society with all sorts of beneficial social, cultural and economic seeds. Fund sport properly, make physical education a compulsory subject in schools and allow companies tax breaks on monies spent on sport as is already the case with charitable donations.

Commit to all that ”” for starters ”” and then lets talk about alcohol.