Judging by the gold medal table, Ireland had its best Olympics ever, securing gold in two different sports for the first time ever. However, when judged against other rich countries with similar-sized populations, we have much catching up to do.
The government recognised as much with the publication of its sports programme before the Games kicked off, so where do we stand?
Just on the off chance you were camped on Pluto for the past two weeks Ireland won two gold medals at Tokyo 2020: Kellie Harrington securing gold on the final day of the Games in one of the greatest fights by an Irish boxer. In the first week on the waters of Japan, West Cork rowers Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy powered to gold.
Elsewhere, we secured a bronze in the women’s coxless four (rowing) and another bronze in boxing. With 116 Irish athletes in Tokyo, it was the biggest team Ireland ever sent to an Olympics.
That total of four medals is quite a considerable way off the 10 medal target as set out by the government in a new sports strategy unveiled earlier this summer which aims to get Ireland up the leader board for Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028).
The buzzwords here are high performance, indeed the plan prepared by Sport Ireland is called the High Performance Strategy, and in putting it together the state body consulted with athletes and coaches from New Zealand and Denmark.
Friends and enemies
New Zealand had its best summer Olympic Games ever in Tokyo. The island nation, with a population of 4.9 million, improved on its Rio Games haul of 18 medals, with a final tally of 20 from Tokyo including seven gold, six silver and seven bronze.
Denmark, (population 5.9 million), meanwhile, had one of its best Olympics in a generation securing 11 medals: three gold, four silver and four bronze. Similar to New Zealand, the haul of medals is spread across a variety of sports, unlike with Ireland where we tend to win medals from a small pool of sports, if we win at all.
Funding and toilets, or lack of both
If Ireland is going to meet the “big ambitions it has on the international stage”, as Minister for Sport and the Gaeltacht Jack Chambers outlined earlier this year, then funding at all levels needs to be increased. As The Irish Independent reported last weekend, even the most basic of facilities are still lacking in sports clubs across Ireland: the boxing gym where gold medallist Kellie Harrington started out her career on Buckingham Street in Dublin still doesn’t have a toilet for females.
Under the High Performance Strategy the government has promised to almost double investment in sport from €118 million in 2018 to more than €220 million by 2027. All too often though our athletes depend on the goodwill of family, friends and the community to help fund them to reach their Olympic goals. Kieran Shannon, writing in The Irish Examiner earlier this year, noted that 67 per cent of all government grants to Irish athletes in 2021 will be allocated to GAA county players.
For Ireland then, it’s a question of finding a balance in order to fulfil those “big ambitions”.