Funding of sport needs to be played by fairer rules

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AODHÁN Ó RÍORDÁIN in The Irish Times

OLYMPIC FEVER in lreland generally means two things. Firstly, we will cheer from our sofas as our athletes chase glory and we will become temporary experts in any discipline in which we have a chance of winning a medal.


Secondly, we engage in the inevitable national debate on sports funding, before that discussion is quickly and quietly shelved for another four years. As a nation we truly understand the power of sport, which is why our investment in it is accepted so widely as being of such importance. We owe it to ourselves to re-evaluate where the bulk of taxpayers ’ money goes and try to play by fairer rules.

We have a lot to celebrate in Ireland about our sporting traditions and we have produced some truly magnificent sports people. Not only have Irish men and women graced the international stage in various sporting codes but we also have preserved extremely successful indigenous games as a hugely popular national pastime.

However, in analysing exchequer expenditure on sport in this country it is clear some blatant inequalities are rife throughout the system.

In 2011  €57 million was made available from the exchequer to the horse and greyhound fund established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001 to support these industries. This Act determines that 100 per cent of the receipts from levies placed on bets in Ireland goes to this fund, regardless of what the bet is placed on. About 80 per cent of the fund benefits Horse Racing Ireland, which oversees a prize money fund 60 per cent higher than that of the UK.

Compare that with the funding of the Irish Sports Council, which last year amounted to  €25.6 million for 57 national governing bodies, 32 local sports partnerships and 18 high-performance sports.

Last week the Irish Amateur Boxing Association president Tommy Murphy questioned the core funding of  €350,000 the association receives compared with  €8.5 million of core funding given to the Football Association of Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association and the Irish Rugby Football Union. But isn ’t this a case of children squabbling over crumbs while the adults stuff themselves with prime steak? Particularly when legislation published last week on a new levy for online betting appears to be heading to the top table again?

The horse and greyhound industries are important to the Irish economy, provide much needed employment and act as tourism magnets. Therefore the taxpayers ’ support is justified. But the Irish Sports Federation estimates that the contribution of the wider sports industry to Ireland ’s economy (38,000 jobs,  €1.8 billion to GDP) compares favourably with horse racing ’s (21,000 jobs,  €1 billion to GDP).

Isn ’t it time the volume of money contributed to this fund was reviewed, with a qualitative analysis undertaken, before any suggestion of further funding?

The levy on online betting is estimated to have the potential to raise more than  €15 million annually. A yield such as this would greatly enhance efforts to tackle gambling-based addiction, promote inclusive strategies or develop disadvantaged-area sporting programmes. With the State ’s resources so stretched, surely we can use our imaginations a bit better?

Can it also be justifiable that tax exemptions continue to allow the thoroughbred horse-breeding industry make a minuscule tax payment to the exchequer from a sector worth hundreds of millions of euro? Meanwhile, many of our athletes involved in the Olympic Games have lived frugally, often forced to train outside Ireland. What a difference a more equitable funding stream would make to their work.

Sport is a magnificent liberator. It can inspire, empower, break down prejudices and provide living proof of the capacity of the human spirit. Of the 11 years I spent teaching in Dublin ’s north inner city, no memory matches the days when all disadvantage melted away and we triumphed in Cumann na mBunscol finals in Croke Park, with children learning to play together regardless of background, ability or even long-term medical conditions.

How we fund sport is a matter of concern for everyone. Sporting endeavour transcends age, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, religion, ability and disability. One could argue that in the current recession sport is one of the only things keeping communities alive.

As a nation we have a widely acknowledged alcohol problem, as well as a growing obesity crisis. We need to look after ourselves better and begin treating ourselves at least as well as we treat our horses and greyhounds. Let us consider this as we cheer from our sofas but let us continue the debate long after the anthems fade.

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin is Labour TD for Dublin North Central