The President of the Olympic Association of Ireland (OFI) has called for equality for Ireland’s Winter Olympians, highlighting the huge imbalances that exist in funding, access to facilities and support structures compared to their Summer Games counterparts.
Sarah Keane, who has been OFI President since 2017, said changes “must happen sooner rather than later” to eliminate inequality for Ireland’s Winter Olympians, who do not have access to government funding through Sport Ireland’s carding scheme.
Keane spoke following the launch of Ireland’s Winter Sports Strategy, which outlines key areas for OFI to focus on in the years to come: facility development, visibility, governance, athlete mapping, participation and talent development.
“It’s about equality, transparency, visibility and infrastructure,” Keane said. “Our goal is to open up more discussions about it.”
Whilst Ireland has never won a medal at the Winter Games, most of the six Irish athletes who competed at the recent Games in Beijing put in top-flight performances, with Jack Gower finishing 12th in alpine combined skiing and Thomas Westgard finished 14th in the men’s 15K cross country, Seamus O’Connor 15th in the snowboard halfpipe and Brendan Newby 20th in the freestyle ski halfpipe.
While some of them received small grants from the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Solidarity Program, the vast majority of their costs were self-funded as they traveled the world and attended qualifying events. To Keane, it just doesn’t make sense that Winter Olympians don’t get the same support as Summer Olympians who are performing at similar levels.
“We feel strong because it’s an inequality,” she said. “We say as a nation that we put athlete welfare first, that morale comes before medals, but we have athletes, especially winter Olympic athletes, making decisions like driving 23 hours because they can’t afford the flight Afford; athletes sleeping in their car so they don’t have to pay for hotel accommodation; Athletes who do one (downhill) run instead of two to afford an extra meal.
“I can understand Sport Ireland having concerns about opening up the card scheme to more people and there’s only a limited amount of money – will that affect others if it opens up? But there are only a limited number of Winter Olympics that will be at this level and they don’t seek special treatment. We just want them to be treated the same as everyone else.”
All six members of the Beijing team of Ireland are based abroad, which comes as no surprise given Ireland’s lack of winter sports facilities. In 2018, the government released its 10-year national sport policy, stating that “increasing participation is the cornerstone” of its goals. Keane believes Ireland’s lack of a year-round ice facility “cuts off that opportunity for anyone who might be interested in ice hockey and ice skating”.
“I think we’re the only capital in Europe that doesn’t have one,” she said. “If you do the comparison to the UK where they have about 60 and you compare by population we should have about five.”
The strategy outlines how a permanent ice facility would be economically viable and achievable “through private funding at little or no cost to the taxpayer, provided government and local authorities can help secure land”.
“A lot of people go abroad to ski,” Keane said. “But there’s also a lot of people here who want to do something different, and you could make luge and skeleton facilities that are hands-on environments — you can do those things to engage minds.”
Sports Secretary Jack Chambers attended the presentation and listened to complaints from athletes and administrators working in national winter sports federations.
“Access to facilities is a big deal,” Keane said. “One of the great things about Irish sport in recent years is giving people the opportunity to stay in Ireland to get the best out of themselves.”
Governance is another area to be targeted as several winter sports governing bodies are currently not recognized by Sport Ireland due to insufficient attendance. “Right now they’re outside the system and we need to fix that so these associations are working towards the same standards of governance,” Keane said. “They all signed up for it and it’s been in the works for a couple of years.”
The strategy also outlines ways to improve visibility for winter sports. RTÉ did not broadcast the recent games in Beijing and Keane believes that increased visibility “will inspire children to do something different”. She paid tribute to the athletes who continue to keep Ireland on the world map of winter sports, despite the difficulties it brings.
“You’re incredibly humble,” she said. “What they do to make ends meet – it’s a very lonely existence. Most of them cannot afford to have a trainer with them. They don’t have physical therapists, sports scientists – the stuff that a lot of our summer Olympians have, and stuff that a lot of athletes in other sports have on their Olympic journey, even if they don’t make it to the Games.”
“All the federations have come together and want to make the sport more visible, they want better access, they want their athletes to be better supported and funded and really just recognition for the contribution they want to make to Irish society.”
Peter Sherrard, CEO of OFI, said: “Winter sports federations have put in a lot of work to create a clear framework for improvement and success over the next four years. The OFI undertakes to support the trip with €50,000 to help the associations to carry out the measures contained therein.
“We have a very exciting project ahead of us that has the potential to transform the way people participate while ensuring that winter sports federations are better recognized and supported by working together, alongside their athletes, who will represent us on the Winter Olympics stage.”
https://www.independent.ie/sport/other-sports/winter-olympics/we-just-want-them-to-be-treated-the-same-sarah-keane-calls-for-equality-for-winter-olympians-41547343.html “We just want them to be treated equally” – Sarah Keane calls for equal rights for Olympic winter athletes