Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 7 Oct 2020

Impact of Covid-19 on Sporting Organisations: Discussion

I remind members and witnesses to turn off their phones and perhaps put them on airplane mode because we know how disruptive they are when they ring. They interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for parliamentary reporters to report the meeting.

We are meeting representatives of the Federation of Irish Sport to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on sporting organisations. On behalf of the committee, I am delighted to welcome Mary O'Connor, CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, along with her colleagues who are joining us remotely as we speak. They are: Niamh Daffy, CEO of Cara, a national organisation providing a collaborative platform to enhance sport and physical activity opportunities for people with disabilities; Hamish Adams, CEO of Athletics Ireland; David McGill, CEO of Badminton Ireland; and the chairperson of Swim Ireland, Peter Conway.

I will invite Mary O'Connor to make a brief opening statement, which will be followed by a discussion with members and the committee. Ms O'Connor will note that the committee may publish the opening statement on its website following the meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Witnesses are reminded that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter, that direction must be respected. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Ms Mary O'Connor

I thank the Chair, Deputies and Senators for inviting the Federation of Irish Sport to appear before the committee.

We are pleased to have the opportunity to detail the immediate and future impact of Covid-19 on the sport and physical activity sector. For members who may not be familiar with the work of the federation, we are a representative body for 110 sporting organisations, comprising 81 national governing bodies and 29 local sports partnerships.

From day one, the sport sector has recognised the severity of the public health emergency and played its part supporting the Government and society in suppressing it at every turn. It has done so through immediate cessation of activity, promoting adherence to Government guidelines, providing facilities for Covid-19 testing and mobilising its volunteers to play their part in community outreach to the most vulnerable. At a time when being apart is so important, sports clubs and their hundreds of thousands of volunteers have ensured that no one is truly alone.

The impact of the pandemic on non-governmental bodies and clubs has been immense. The restrictions introduced in response to coronavirus have presented a significant challenge for us all. Sporting organisations and clubs generate revenue in many ways, but the sport sector is not sustainable without yearly memberships, event participants and supporters at games and events. The lack of activity in 2020 has resulted in significant financial difficulty. Many organisations have prudently introduced cost-cutting measures while utilising whatever financial reserves they may have, as well as accessing the Government supports available to them. The €70 million resilience fund announced by the Government in June was welcome respite and provided stability for our members to year end. Across the board, our member organisations have experienced losses of up to 70% of self-generated revenue. The GAA, FAI and IRFU will experience an estimated combined financial loss of €81 million in 2020. There has been a 60% reduction in footfall and income in commercial sports facilities, including gyms. More than 10% of swimming pools have closed permanently since March. Furthermore, the impact on events and mass activity has compounded matters for many organisations that rely heavily on such events, both financially and for competitive purposes. For example, it was meant to be a stellar year for Athletics Ireland, with it hosting the European Championships. Instead, it has suffered a loss of 50% for the second half of 2020 and is in the middle of a redundancy process for 15% of its staff, with a further 40% on short time since May.

The onset of winter brings many additional challenges for the indoor sporting sector. Sporting activity has been significantly curtailed under the approved guidelines. Many clubs cannot access facilities to restart the club as they do not own the facility. Where indoor sport has restarted, clubs are facing higher overheads to cover PPE and cleaning, etc. The impact of restrictions and capacity limits has reduced the ability to generate income, with group exercise classes and swimming lessons not permitted under level 3 restrictions.

Although the immediate impact to date has been immense, the federation and its members have significant concerns about the long-term impact into 2021 and beyond. We expect our members to encounter issues including retention of members into 2021, retention of volunteers to support the running of activities, continuing financial losses because of the uncertainty around mass participation events, long-term viability of people and programmes if financial losses persist and the stagnation of emerging talent on high-performance pathways, which will have a long-term impact on preparations for the Olympics in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028.

Unlike other economically beneficial sectors, the sport and physical activity sector cannot always ensure social distancing of participants. For that reason, we believe the sector is at a distinct disadvantage in the context of current and future public health advice and, as such, should continue to be financially supported in the absence of full competition events and mass activity. The business model of sport has changed due to Covid-19. Organisations need time and resources to adjust and develop a new model. They will do so. The loss of revenue streams as previously outlined means the sector needs Government support to the end of the pandemic or it will struggle to reboot in time. Following the launch of the national sports policy in 2018, there have been two years of established funding, which has been welcomed by all involved. However, budget 2021 is a watershed moment for sport in Ireland and the Government's commitment to the national sports policy. It is essential for the ultimate success of the national sports policy that budget 2021 takes the third step on the road to fulfilling the promise of doubling funding through the next ten years. We are acutely aware of all the factions of society that currently face immense challenges. Grassroots sport and physical activity wish to be part of the solution, not just in terms of improved physical well-being and reducing the burden on the health system, but in terms of their positive impact on mental well-being, as well as helping to overcome societal challenges such as loneliness, crime and isolation. Furthermore, sport has the power to contribute substantially to the recovery of the economy. As a sector, it currently yields €195 return for every €100 invested in it by the Government and employs some 39,500 people. It accounts for €2.7 billion in annual consumer spending.

I thank the Government and the committee for their support to date. The recognition of the challenges our members face has been a positive step on the road to ensuring their recovery. I thank the members of the committee for their time and welcome any questions they may have.

I thank Ms O'Connor, as well as Ms Daffy, Mr. Adams and Mr. Conway who are listening in attentively. I am sure they too will have something to say on the matter. Ms O'Connor touched on many different areas. In my locality, there is a swimming pool set up and run by the community. It has been closed for six months, which has a devastating impact on people. It does not just affect the community; it has a far-reaching impact. Do Ms Daffy, Mr. Adams or Mr. Conway wish to comment before we go to members for questions? They are okay for the moment.

I thank Ms O'Connor for her opening remarks. On the €70 million injection the sector received, how has it been spent? How much of it has been spent to date? How is it divided up?

Ms Mary O'Connor

Sport Ireland is the statutory funder. It went through a process of applications. There were four grant schemes. The closing date was in September. The matter is being considered by Sport Ireland and it is hoped that the funding will be distributed to the sector in October.

Has the federation had any engagement with the Minister regarding its pre-budget submission?

Ms Mary O'Connor

Yes. I met the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, and we discussed the main asks of the budget submission.

On compliance, I wish to address indoor training in particular. Who oversees that? What measures are in place to ensure public health guidelines are adhered to?

Ms Mary O'Connor

The return to sport expert group was set up with Sport Ireland and departmental officials. It has met nearly 19 times since it was established, which is a significant number of meetings. Sport Ireland then lets the organisations know what are the return to sport protocols. Individual sports create their own protocols which are endorsed by the return to sport expert group. It is overseen by Sport Ireland.

Is Ms O'Connor satisfied that process is working well?

Ms Mary O'Connor

There are challenges. When a move to a different level of restrictions is communicated, the organisations have to go back in-house and check what they need to do to adhere to the guidelines. Obviously, there will be matters of interpretation. Sport Ireland has been excellent in communicating to the sector any queries it has, but it is difficult because the sports are different. There are variances in how to adhere to the guidelines.

It is difficult to manage. Ms O'Connor made reference to the organisations comprising the federation and the difficulties they have experienced. One of them referred to higher levels of risk leading to inflated insurance premiums. Can Ms O'Connor give us more information on that issue and whether insurers or landlords working with the groups are making things more difficult? What is the situation there?

Ms Mary O'Connor

It is an evolving situation because many organisations, particularly those involved in indoor sports, do not own their facility. The facility may be owned by a community group. There are health and safety risks. People are learning as they are going and, as such, they are hesitant to rent out their facilities. There are also issues in respect of insurance for elite athletes who travel overseas for competition around the risks involved in their travel. This is an emerging situation for us as the indoor season is just beginning, but the individual sports are engaging with their insurers in that regard. The issue of facility hire is difficult because most organisations do not own the facilities they use.

Does the federation have a plan to counteract those difficulties? How does it plan to deal with them?

Ms Mary O'Connor

We are a member of the Alliance for Insurance Reform, which is doing great work in this space. We will liaise with it and also engage with insurers.

Ms O'Connor referred to redundancies at Athletics Ireland. Is she getting reports from other sporting organisations around their having to let people go?

Ms Mary O'Connor

It is no secret that the organisations are significantly challenged. The resilience fund will be of assistance in that regard. The organisations have been prudent.

Athletics Ireland has cost-cutting measures, and the last thing it wants to do is to let staff go or make them redundant. It is a difficult situation, and Mr. Adams is here today. This is the only organisation that I have heard of in respect of this situation so far, but others are in the process of consideration.

I thank Ms O'Connor.

I thank Ms O'Connor for the presentation and all the witnesses joining us online as well. Regarding my work in the Department with responsibility for sport over the past three years, I acknowledge the important work that the Federation of Irish Sport does for sport in Ireland at every level. I also acknowledge the great co-operation it has with the other partners in the Irish sporting landscape, which is also important. What is the top priority for the members of the Federation of Irish Sport as we head into budget 2021? What would Ms O'Connor identify as the key needs to be addressed next Tuesday?

Ms Mary O'Connor

The key need is delivery on action 45 of the national sports policy. The organisations need certainty, and they need to be assured of their funding. There have been two years of established funding and there is an expectation, notwithstanding the pressure on the public finances, that the funding will increase in line with the national sports policy, and that is the major request. That is especially the case around the core current funding that the organisations get. They also get funding from initiatives such as women in sport, the Dormant Accounts Fund and the high-performance fund, but that is all ring-fenced for specific activities. When the core current funding comes in, that allows the organisations to look at their strategic objectives and operational plans, and lets those organisations grow as a result.

We have seven years left to get to the end of the national sports policy. The previous two budgets, more or less, have the sports organisations on a trajectory to just reach the target regarding investment at core funding level. Ms O'Connor is telling us that any deviation, in a negative way, from that trajectory could risk the objective of the national sports policy being met in 2027, because it would leave too much of a mountain to climb.

Ms Mary O'Connor

That is absolutely the case. The new programme for Government has gone on to aim for 60% participation of the general public in sport. That type of target is important for the sports sector. We want to play a role and the sports sector is dynamic, but we must be resourced to ensure that happens. We must remember that, annually, there is a cost of €1.5 billion to the Exchequer because of obesity and physical inactivity. We are stating that investment in prevention will mean we will not have to pay over the odds for the cure.

Lastly and briefly, because I am conscious there are many people with questions and also many witnesses, regarding the fund of €70 million secured in June, which is currently being distributed, I was in the Department at the time and those figures were based on an anticipation that we would be further along the road in recovering from the impact of Covid-19 by now. We are back in level 3 now, unfortunately, and the future is quite uncertain. Is it envisaged, therefore, that there will be a requirement for further funding, in addition to the ordinary core funding we have spoken about, for the national governing bodies and for sports at various levels?

Ms Mary O'Connor

When we met with the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, previously regarding our budget submission, we referred to a provision for extra measures for sport as we head into 2021, because of the uncertainty. The €70 million was very welcome, but it was also undeniably necessary. This is an evolving situation, and we just do not know where we are going to be in a few months, but there is significant pressure on the sector. A provision in the budget for supporting sport in 2021 will be something that all the organisations would welcome.

I thank Ms O'Connor.

I join in acknowledging what Deputy Griffin has said regarding how many sports the federation supports. There are 81 sports. As Ms O'Connor said, if we pick up the newspapers on a Monday morning we might think that there are only five sports in this country. There are, however, a damn sight more, and the support they receive on every level is to be acknowledged. I join Deputy Griffin in what he has said.

Turning to funding in the context of next week's budget, there are two aspects. There is funding to achieve the strategy of which Ms O'Connor spoke and the longer-term goals for the country. Then there is also funding to ensure that organisations do not become insolvent. In respect of next week, where do things stand for the federation? As Deputy Griffin said, the resilience fund was set up initially in the anticipation that we would be further down the road now than we are. That funding will get us to the end of this year, but where are we regarding the funding models for next year?

Ms O'Connor touched on that area in her remarks. The sporting organisations will have to rethink their funding models, and I am conscious that many of the big sporting organisations, such as the FAI, the IRFU and the GAA, have already changed their funding models in the past ten to 15 years. Their commercial partners are now a huge part of those funding strands. Legal contracts are involved, and there are now suggestions that they do not stand up, given that there have not been games and there were no opportunities for those commercial partners to use their brands. Changes have occurred in that sense as well. I ask Ms O'Connor to elaborate on that point briefly.

In addition, I acknowledge the witnesses present who represent the smaller sporting organisations, such as Badminton Ireland. I refer to how the current situation impacts on those organisations on a tangible level. Mr. Adams of Athletics Ireland referenced the job losses being experienced, and his organisation is one of the biggest outside of the three big field sports. Given the year we were meant to have in this area, and that we still anticipate having next year, I would like Mr. Adams to comment on the impact of those job losses. I would like Ms O'Connor to comment first.

Ms Mary O'Connor

To give an overview of the model of funding for sports in this country, sports organisations get public funding through Sport Ireland, but they also generate their own funding from memberships, sponsorships, footfall and gate receipts at events, and so on. If the external economic environment is challenged, the sector is also challenged because there will be no opportunity to seek sponsors for events. Within the federation, we have niche and emerging sports, and they are niche and emerging sports because they do not have the legacy and the tradition in this country. They are very resilient and dynamic, however. They need to generate funds and they do that through the methods to which I referred.

The challenge now is for all the organisations to look at their strategies. They all have a strategy to grow their sports, and the question now is to see how we can ensure there is growth in our sports but also that we are being prudent in our spending. That is the big question. There will be a reduction in the income of those organisations and the opportunities they provide now, such as coaching programmes, summer camps and Easter camps, will all be reduced because there is not the wherewithal to make those happen, because of a lack of staff or funding.

As a supplementary question on that point, has the Federation of Irish Sport engaged with the CEOs of the major sporting bodies? Sporting bodies abroad, such as the RFU in England, have stated that they are potentially looking at insolvency because they cannot afford to pay the contracts of their professional players. Let us take the fact that we are not going to have spectators in major sporting grounds in this country for at least the next six months. I refer to the impact of no one going to the autumn internationals, the spring internationals or the all-Ireland series. How much in the way of financial reserves exist, how much Government subvention is being asked for and where does the federation see that situation going in the next six months?

Ms Mary O'Connor

It is important to mention that the three main field sports of which Senator Cassells spoke are all members of the Federation of Irish Sport, and they have been active members of the organisation. That is important, because we all believe in the community of sport. Those organisations appeared before the Covid-19 committee previously. They outlined their financial situations, and that in 2020 the three organisations together are estimating losses of €81 million. That is significant. From the perspective of the Federation of Irish Sport, regarding Government funding and the budget, we advocate for all our member organisations and not just the niche and emerging sports, and that includes those three field sports.

I refer to my question which was directed to Mr. Adams of Athletics Ireland. How is Mr. Adams?

Mr. Hamish Adams

I am good, and I thank the Senator.

Regarding the impact of the current situation in respect of job losses, etc., will Mr. Adams outline what that will mean for his organisation? I refer to both at a national level in terms of working with elite athletes and also the various clubs throughout the country.

Mr. Hamish Adams

It is a challenging time and, as Deputy Griffin, Senator Cassells and Ms O'Connor have eloquently spelled out, the business model of all our sports has changed. We had planned to deliver 21 mass participation recreational events this year, which is a significant source of income for us, and unfortunately not one of those events has taken place in person. We have delivered several virtually but unfortunately the margins on such events do not generate the revenues in-person events create. It has had a massive impact on our organisation right across the board. We require people to run programmes and if we do not have those people on board, it has a negative effect on our ability to deliver.

I endorse Ms O'Connor's words. The business model of all sports has changed due to this pandemic. We will need time to adjust and develop our new model. We are resilient and dynamic and we will adjust but we will need support from Government during this phase of adjustment and that is why budget 2021 is a watershed for us. Sport has a huge influence on the physical and mental health of the nation.

I thank Mr. Adams and Senator Cassells. I am informed our guests would like to address the meeting if that is okay with members. Ms Niamh Daffy has indicated she would like to contribute.

Ms Niamh Daffy

I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for the opportunity to be part of the discussions today. I particularly thank Ms O'Connor and the Federation of Irish Sport for the invitation. I attend today with a remit and focus in relation to sport and physical activity for people with disabilities. I echo what Ms O'Connor has indicated in her statement on the need for increased investment as we move into budget 2021 to make sure we protect and preserve the commitment and investment that has been put towards the inclusion of people with disabilities in sport and physical activity.

I speak today on behalf of the disability sports sector, in particular, Paralympics, Special Olympics, Irish wheelchair sport, vision sport and a number of organisations which are doing tremendous work ensuring people with disabilities have access to, and opportunities to engage in, sport and physical activity. The ask is that we continue to protect, preserve and maintain the work that has been completed to date. As we look to 2021 and the objectives within the national sports policy, I ask that we continue to ensure that sports for people with disabilities is on the agenda. It is clear that it has been to date. With the recent announcement of the resilience fund, there is specific funding allocated to sports inclusion. Funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund was announced recently. All organisations I have mentioned are struggling and have had significant impacts that have been listed today. I ask the Government to continue to ensure sport for people with disabilities is considered in all plans, actions and investments.

Mr. David McGill

I thank Ms O'Connor for inviting me today. I want to pick up on the discussion around the resilience fund. It was great to see that come out. When the lockdown was first announced in March, badminton was entering its off season so the impact was not really evident then. As we have seen, things have changed drastically in recent months. When we initially surveyed our members in May, there was a 90% commitment to get back to playing. We are now entering the start of our season, which takes place in September. Our membership numbers are down 75%. Clubs cannot get access to halls. Clubs cannot get back because people are not sure whether they are allowed to play and what the regulations are. There is a lot of concern regarding our financial modelling moving forward. As Ms O'Connor outlined, if that trend continues, it will mean almost €200,000 will be lost to Badminton Ireland. That accounts for a substantial amount of our income, along with events. A large proportion of our income is derived from events. We had to cancel our Irish Open, due to take place in December. It is the first time it has been cancelled since the Second World War. We face unprecedented times and I echo what my colleagues said on support for sport moving into 2021 while we try to address our business models.

Mr. Peter Conway

I thank members for the opportunity to contribute. I thank Ms O'Connor for her comprehensive overview of the position. From the perspective of swimming, the outlook and the reality at this point are rather bleak. The Chairman mentioned that a swimming pool near her is struggling at the moment. At this time, approximately 35 pools remain closed and others are on a financial knife-edge. One particular challenge is that maintenance of a facility such as a swimming pool is an ongoing task and it is not a question of locking up and moving on. There are constant demands for maintenance.

One of the biggest challenges facing us as a sport is the cessation of swimming lessons. We had swimming lessons at level 2 of the Covid guidelines but the cessation of lessons at level 3 has been a massive blow to swimming around the country. As the committee is probably aware, swimming lessons are the financial lifeblood of swimming pools and clubs. In our view, rather than just a sporting activity, those lessons are an educational experience, equipping younger people especially with a vital life skill. As such, we see a place for swimming lessons within level 3. Learning to swim saves lives and with the absence of swimming lessons during the pandemic, I have no doubt there will be a cost somewhere along the line. We propose that lessons operate within a controlled environment, giving individual attention with carefully regulated numbers and access and egress and respecting social distancing. It is interesting to note that it is recognised that coronavirus cannot survive in a chlorinated environment.

Other than that, I echo what Mr. McGill said a moment ago. We are in the middle of what would be our affiliation period. We would normally expect to have 60% of our members registered and paid up. At this point, we are in the region of 15%. That is where numbers are at and without those vital funds flowing into us, we will struggle significantly. Swimming, of all sports, is a lifelong journey and is attractive to people from the youngest to the oldest, across all social boundaries and in all social groups. At this time, it is a journey interrupted and we would really like to get it under way again.

I thank Mr. Conway. As he alluded to, swimming pools come under a different umbrella. Some are run by local authorities. The one I spoke about at Bailieborough Community School was built and run by the community for a much bigger community. There are massive costs in remaining closed. There are aspects of that we never think about. The running costs while it remains closed are significant and that has serious implications. I will return to the members and thank our witnesses and guests for their contributions.

I thank Ms O'Connor and the other contributors. It is important to acknowledge the work of the national governing bodies and also the clubs and organisations on the ground in helping us through this period. Ms O'Connor mentioned that but for us as a committee it is important to do so. In all of our communities, the sports clubs contribute in different ways to helping us through this. One issue we need to talk about as part of our agenda is that when we get through this Covid period, there will be an essential role in the community for sports clubs to help rebuild community activity. There is the initial period to get over this but that is the longer term challenge. Part of that, as Ms O'Connor mentioned, relates to the programme for Government.

Obesity is a challenge. It is important to have mass participation in sport. Regarding two of the areas of mass participation, we need to signal a particular concern over what we have heard regarding Athletics Ireland and Swim Ireland. We are not going to achieve the desired targets if swimming pools are closed and there is no access to swimming lessons. Athletics Ireland is not in a sustainable position in this regard. Could Ms O'Connor state how we can get through this? How does she envisage the local sports partnerships dealing with it?

I have another issue I want to raise but it is separate.

I am so conscious of time and want to make sure everybody gets to make a contribution, if that is acceptable.

The issue concerns the support that will be needed for elite athletes. Specific reference was made by Ms O'Connor to the Olympics in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028, but also to Tokyo in 2021, which I hope will happen. In this regard, I am thinking of the performance of Stephen Scullion in London at the weekend. I am referring to Irish athletics, in particular, but there are many of our elite athletes doing particularly well. What do we need to do to support them, in particular, at this time?

I echo the views of Senator Byrne on all the work done by the various sports clubs in communities in every county.

I want to pick up a point made by the representatives of Swim Ireland. Perhaps it should be put to NPHET that swimming lessons could take place. It was stated they are the lifeblood of many pools. Perhaps NPHET could consider this based on the fact that Covid cannot live in chlorine.

Ms O’Connor mentioned the sports partnerships. I was a member of the sports partnership in my local authority for a number of years. Funding for community sports development officers and sports inclusion development officers is provided in a way that makes it very difficult for local authorities to have a multi-annual programme. With Covid, are there guarantees that the officers will be in place for the year? We need to put in place a multi-annual funding scheme so they will be in place for a number of years.

Let me refer to facilities and funding. I met Mr. Adams at the launch the Longford Athletics Club project to develop an indoor and outdoor facility. The work is midstream but now we are in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Will there be any supports for such organisations to help them to ensure they can finish their projects?

I have a few simple questions for Ms O'Connor on the difficulties elite athletes face financially. Their performance level has been down because of Covid-19. When they do well, their sports do very well. Katie Taylor is an example in that every young girl in the country wants to be a boxer. Could Ms O'Connor elaborate on that?

I thank the witnesses for attending. With regard to the recently launched Sport Ireland policy on sport and physical activity in the outdoors, are there any plans for recreational walking? What does the plan contain regarding financial support for community walking? We are aware of the importance of this. I am not the most sporting person but I go out for a walk and get people to go out for one. We are aware of how important walking is to health and also of how important it is in taking people off our rural roads.

Could Sport Ireland define what is meant by "elite sport"? Many groups are questioning how they should define themselves. A number of organisations have taken on the definition themselves. Is there a definition somewhere because when people argue that a certain individual is competing, I, without wanting to put the individual down, ask whether his or her sport is an elite sport. What sports can take place in this regard? At what level must an individual or team be participating to continue playing sport at level 3? The level could end up increasing.

What financial supports are available to sports partnerships to promote and develop exercise plans for older adults at home? This is relevant to Sport Ireland. We have a growing older population. There are all sorts of concerns over the well-being and health of our cocooners and over whether they are cocooning. What can we say to the older population and ourselves about physical well-being and health? The subject is briefly mentioned in the plan.

I have just one question. The fifth and final chapter of the 20x20 campaign began three weeks ago. The Federation of Irish Sport and the vast majority of its members have pledged their active support for it by signing the 20x20 charter. I do not need to tell those present that the aim is to increase the participation, funding and prominence of women and girls in sport. We need political consensus behind this. It is a matter we will discuss in our consideration of the draft work programme I have submitted to the Chair.

Is Ms O'Connor confident that momentum will not be lost in the campaign that is beginning a cultural shift regarding women and girls in sport? We need to make continual progress. Is Ms O'Connor confident we can maintain the momentum in the face of Covid-19?

My question may be difficult to answer because only time will tell the impact of the current disruption on young elite athletes, or athletes who are earmarked for great things, including future Olympians. I am thinking in particular of badminton, swimming and athletics which, let us face it, have been under-funded traditionally and which have been operating on shoestring budgets. What is the impact of the lost time and disruption? Will it, in some weird way, be offset by international experience? Have any witnesses an example of where other countries facing similar challenges are still able to bring on and develop their young elite athletes in the less well-known sports?

I have two questions. On the capital projects, will there be an impact on the Sport Ireland campus owing to a lack of funding? To follow on from Senator Carrigy's comments on local sports partnerships, we have over 29 organisations that were funded last year and they received €8.9 million. That was up 13% on 2019. What is envisaged for 2021? Will there be greater demand? How important will it be to build awareness at local level? In my constituency, Mayo, the sports authorities do a fabulous job. There is an inclusion officer and a community development officer and they do brilliant work in all the towns and villages throughout the county. It is an invaluable service and it needs to be supported and even enhanced.

Regarding our current Olympians and Paralympians who have already reached the standard for Tokyo 2020, will funding be maintained over the period up to the Olympics in 2021?

I thank all the members for being so swift in making their contributions and asking their questions. I ask Ms O'Connor to respond and perhaps wrap up.

Ms Mary O'Connor

On Senator Byrne's comments, athletics and swimming, alongside cycling, are the prioritised sports in the national sports policy so it is important that they be resourced under the policy.

On the comments of Senator Byrne and Deputy Dillon on the local sports partnerships, the work of the partnerships is immense. They target the groups that are hard to reach.

They target the under-represented groups that are mentioned in the national sport policy, including ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and so on. They do extremely significant work and must be resourced. Last year their core funding was €7.1 million and they had programme funding of another €871,000. They also got women in sport funding. All are vital and all run excellent programmes. The return on that investment can be seen clearly in the SPEAK reports published by Sport Ireland which detail the work of the local sports partnerships. Real value for money is being obtained.

In terms of high-performance athletes, there was a commitment in the national sports policy to multi-annual funding which gives athletes certainty. I think I am right in saying that when Covid-19 hit, the CEO of Sport Ireland, Mr. John Treacy, said that any carded athlete in 2020 would continue to be carded until after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Difficulties being faced by high performance and elite athletes include a lack of access to facilities and equipment. Level 5 restrictions would be catastrophic for high-performance athletes and would put them at a real competitive disadvantage in the context of preparations for Tokyo.

Senator Hoey spoke about recreational walking and in that context, the Get Ireland Walking initiative is being supported by Sport Ireland and Healthy Ireland. Elite sport is defined and the return to sport expert group in its most recent communications provided a definition for all sporting organisations. That information was distributed to individual clubs and so on. Elite sport means different things in the various sporting codes but Sport Ireland has a definition for it as it relates to level 3 restrictions.

In terms of emerging talent, there are two funding streams, that is, the elite pathway and the emerging talent pathway. We have so many emerging talent athletes in this country and, obviously, Covid-19 is affecting them. As with the high-performance athletes, access to facilities and to competition is difficult. Some of the other witnesses would be better able to elaborate on the situation with regard to their own elite athletes.

Senator Warfield referred to the 20x20 campaign which has been a massive success. All of the national governing bodies united and worked together on that campaign to bring about a change of mindset and to stimulate difficult conversations. Sport Ireland has a women in sport committee, of which I am a member, as well as a women in sport policy. We hope that our policy will ensure long-term and sustainable change for sport in this country. We must ensure that there is adequate media coverage and that there are opportunities for girls to participate in a meaningful way in sport across the entire country, not just in areas of high population. The latter point is really important and formed the basis of the 20x20 campaign. We did not want it to be a Dublin-centric campaign but one that was as far reaching as possible.

I believe Mr. Adams and Mr. Conway wish to contribute before we wrap up.

Mr. Hamish Adams

I wish to endorse what Ms O'Connor said. Several questions were posed on high-performance athletes and I can provide some examples of additional costs related to Covid-19 for teams. We plan to send a team of three athletes to the World Half Marathon Championships, which are coming up shortly in Poland. Each of those athletes and two support staff members, that is, the physiotherapist and the team manager, will be tested four times. They will be tested four days before they leave, when they arrive, on day three after they return and again on day ten. That adds an additional cost per person of €600. This is for a tiny team so committee members can imagine the costs over the course of a year. We will send over 200 athletes to events and each of those athletes will have to stay in single rooms. If we cannot provide our elite and developing athletes with access to international competition, their development will be constrained. They want to compete against the best in Europe and the world and it is incumbent upon us to give them that opportunity so that they can reach their full potential. These are just two examples of why we will require additional funding and support to help our talented athletes across all sports to be the best they can be and to make our nation proud.

Mr. Peter Conway

Senator Hoey made a very interesting point regarding the recreational side of sport, and swimming is enormously important in that regard. Given the good weather we have had for almost six months, we have seen a massive surge in recreational swimming activity, particularly outdoors. Indeed, Deputy Bruton, got some good national coverage for his open water endeavours during the summer. As the winter approaches and outdoor recreational activities become more difficult, this is the ideal time for swimming pools to come into their own in terms of providing social opportunities as well as formal lessons. This is an area that deserves further consideration

I thank all of the witnesses for their attendance today, both physically and virtually. Their contributions are greatly appreciated and will assist the committee greatly in its deliberations.

Sitting suspended at 3.56 p.m. and resumed at 3.58 p.m.