Sport

No logic to retrospective funding. Shane and Mark need money now

February 24th, 2019 6:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Skibbereen's Shane O'Driscoll and Mark O'Donovan in action for Ireland in the men's pair in 2018.

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‘DEMORALISING’. ‘A kick in the teeth’. ‘Simply not good enough’.

Mark O’Donovan is not holding back. He’s frustrated, annoyed and angry. And he’s entitled to be all three and more, considering that Shane O’Driscoll and himself have lost their Sport Ireland funding, a story we carried first here last week. 

To get you up to speed, here’s where we’re at: two Skibb rowers who were world champions in 2017 in a non-Olympic class boat have switched to an Olympic class boat to try and qualify for the 2020 Games in Tokyo and they can qualify this year, but they’ve lost their Sport Ireland funding and must now dip into their own savings to keep going and realise their dream.

There’s been plenty of confusion here, too. Sport Ireland have said that Mark and Shane didn’t meet the criteria to be eligible for funding this year. The Skibb rowers are adamant that they did meet the criteria and were told that they were eligible and not entitled. Rowing Ireland High Performance Director Antonio Maurogiiovanni told the Irish Times this week that ‘It is a decision of Sport Ireland, not our decision.’ And Mark took to social media on Wednesday to say, ‘You meet Sport Ireland carding criteria but your told no by Rowing Ireland.’

It’s a mess – and Mark and Shane are the big losers in all of this at a time when all their focus should be on rowing and moving the men’s pair fast enough to get to Tokyo.

The Sport Ireland ‘World Class’ funding is worth €20,000 each to them. This year a change to the international carding scheme means that grants are now awarded on a two-year basis rather than annually; that means that Mark and Shane have effectively missed out on €40,000 each over two years.

Sport Ireland Director of High Performance Paul McDermott has confirmed to The Southern Star that Mark and Shane’s funding would be retrospectively reinstated if they do hit the criteria this year – but the issue here is that the two local rowers feel they have ticked the boxes they needed to tick but have still been overlooked. 

‘From Sport Ireland’s point of view, the lads didn’t meet the criteria, therefore they weren’t eligible for funding in 2019. Having said that, Sport Ireland have committed to the rowers that should they meet the criteria again in 2019, they will be fully and retrospectively funded,’ McDermott said.

The logic of retrospective funding is baffling because Mark and Shane need that money now if they want to qualify. They’re both students and they have no other incomes. The grant of €20,000 each they received in 2018 was their wage for 12 months. That’s what they lived on. That pays for rent, for food, for petrol, for rowing gear they need, for the levies they need to compete internationally. It’s all they have.

It’s the money that will help them train, prepare and row to the level they need to reach if they are to qualify for an Olympics – but it has been taken away. Now they have to use their own savings and as Mark said, whatever savings he has will be eaten into very fast.

It’s going to be a hard year as it is. They finished 16th at the 2018 World Rowing Championships last September and they need to finish in the top 11 at this year’s Worlds in Austria to qualify for Tokyo, so they have ground to make up in a short space of time. Their total focus should be on training and not spent rifling though paperwork to help them launch an appeal against the decision.

Even if they miss out on the top 11 at the Worlds this year, there is a final Olympic qualification regatta in 2020 with another two places up grabs.

And then they’re then told if they achieve their goal – without any funding help from Sport Ireland and by paying for it themselves out of their own pockets – they’ll effectively be back paid.

That’s some way to treat two former world rowing champions. Instead of being supported, they’ve been cast aside.

No wonder Mark says it’s a kick in the teeth. But it’s a kick in the balls as well, and a hammer blow to their chances of qualifying for the Olympics.

‘It ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. You meet Sport Ireland carding criteria but your told no by Rowing Ireland. Simply not good enough. That’s 20k missed out on over the next two years. Puts us in a position we don’t deserve to be in, that’s demoralising,’ Mark wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

They’re going to appeal the decision and they feel they have a strong case. They’ve heard nothing either from the powers-that-be since we broke this story last Thursday. Instead they continue to train at the National Rowing Centre in Inniscarra ahead of the international rowing season that starts in May with World Rowing Cup I in Plovdiv. This is a distraction that they don’t need. 

It’s also another example of how powers-that-be sometimes don’t look at the bigger picture. 

Here are two Skibb rowers, from the same club as Gary and Paul O’Donovan, who were world lightweight champions and have made a challenging switch to heavyweight to realise their dream of representing Ireland at the Olympics. If they achieve that – and it looks like they’ll have to do it on their own now – then that’s a fantastic Irish sports story of overcoming the odds. That’s inspiring stuff. 

This all reminds me of what happened to former Olympic rower Paul Griffin in 2010. He was one of the toughest men ever to pull an oar in Ireland. As Niall O’Toole says, he was ‘fucking terrifying to rowing behind.’ Paul was a different breed: intense, quiet and single-minded.

After rowing for Ireland at the Athens Olympics in 2004 – in a lightweight four that also included Skibbereen’s Eugene Coakley with Timmy Harnedy as the sub – and the 2008 Games in Beijing, where Richard Coakley was involved, Paul switched his focus to the cross-country skiing and the Winter Olympics. His target was to represent Ireland at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. It was a massive challenge: switching sports and then getting to an Olympic standard. Over 18 months, he achieved just that and became an Olympic standard cross-country skier. Paul did what he had to do to be selected for Ireland. Instead, the Olympic Council of Ireland opted for 21-year-old PJ Barron who, granted, had the better qualifying standard – but he was a Scottish-born skier who skied for Great Britain up until 2008 when he transferred to Ireland.

‘I think that a great opportunity has been lost here. It’s not as if I didn’t qualify. I was available to be selected as I had reached the qualification standards. I went through the qualification process. I got the points. But unfortunately the powers-that-be selected a guy who was skiing with the British team up until March 2008 and who transferred to Ireland in December 2008. He was seventh or eighth in the British team and if he had stayed with them he wouldn’t have qualified for the Olympics. But he invoked his right to get an Irish passport,’ Griffin said at the time.

He would have become only Ireland’s third-ever athlete to compete at both the Summer and Winter Olympics – but decisions made above him denied him.

Decisions made above Mark and Shane have placed them on the back foot in the most important rowing year of their lives. They need to be supported. They gave Irish sport fantastic days in 2017 as they dominated the world of the men’s lightweight pair, and kept Irish rowing in the headlines nationally and internationally, but now they’ve been left on their own.

They deserve a lot more than this.

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