Before I begin, I wish the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Cheann Comhairle, all the staff and management in the convention centre and in Leinster House, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, a happy Christmas. I also take the opportunity, as a Dub, to wish the Dublin men's and women's GAA teams luck for the weekend. I acknowledge the huge credit that must go to the GAA for managing to organise a championship when there have been so many challenges.
There are more than 60 recognised national sports governing bodies under the umbrella of Sport Ireland, all of which represent elite athletes. Many of those sporting bodies have contacted me to express their concern that their members cannot compete but the GAA has been able to hold matches. The Olympic Games will be held next year and many of those who will be competing are not able to play and compete at this time. That will undoubtedly impact on their preparations for Tokyo in 2021.
Basketball, tennis, athletics, hockey, rugby and other sports feel they are, to use their words, "being shafted". The question of which sports can hold events should not come down to who is the best at lobbying. It should be determined by scientific evidence. The GAA is a great organisation and it has done wonderful work on many levels, including community participation, mental health and sport itself. However, there is a real sense among other sports that the GAA is getting preferential treatment. The Olympian Rob Heffernan recently highlighted that the Government does not consider four athletes who are going to the Olympic Games next year to be elite enough to compete in the world-class facilities we have in this country. How can the Government state that Olympians are not elite and, therefore, cannot compete? Athletics competitions are outdoor and non-contact, yet they are not allowed to go ahead at an elite level. All sports must be treated equally and the Government needs to widen its definition of what is elite.
Athletics events are being run in the North and throughout Europe. Athletes have been travelling throughout Europe and the world to compete. Few, if any, have become sick. Sport Ireland has given a directive that it does not want people travelling, but it is not ensuring that competition and challenges are available for them here. We need to cater for our Olympic athletes at home and not force them abroad. I understand Sport Ireland has issued a decree that any athletes who travel abroad will be penalised. That is really unfair. A recent survey carried out by the Japan Association of Athletics Federations showed that 571,000 athletes and 98,000 officials and staff took part in 787 races and track meetings in that country from 1 July to 4 October, resulting in only one case of someone involved contracting Covid-19 in the following two weeks. An athletics event can be held with fewer than 50 people at a facility at any one time. That would provide qualification opportunities. These are skilled people who conduct events on road tracks and indoor tracks. It only requires approval from Sport Ireland to enable them to do so. An event can be done simply and can provide an opportunity for athletes to qualify for international competition.