OVER 400 people attended Sport Ireland’s recent HPX 2017 high performance conference which, this year, concentrated on coaching and among the speakers was Finbarr Kirwan who left the Irish Sports Council in 2013 to work for the USA Olympic Committee, where he is now Senior Director of their High Performance programme.
Kirwan explained how Team USA, which won 121 medals in Rio 2016, has $65m annual funding, all of it sourced privately (through sponsors, TV or philanthropy) because the USOC is prohibited, by law, from receiving government funding. That kind of finance allows the USOC to pay extraordinarily detailed attention to their training and preparation. Kirwan revealed that they laid a new surface on the track and throwing circle in their pre-Olympic holding camp in Rio, which exactly replicated the Games’ venues. However, with his new perspective from across the Atlantic, Kirwan also had some useful insight into Ireland’s elite sporting system.
What are your impressions of high performance sport in Ireland on this visit home?
When I left in May 2013 what is now the National Indoor Arena in Abbottstown was a green field site. There was a couple of buildings being refurbished so when I drove in this time I was genuinely gob-smacked by what I saw. I worked with John Treacy for 20 years and this was his vision, it is very impressive. There is clearly an improved infrastructure here now.
Since I’ve left I’ve also see the diversification in Irish success. This summer alone, for example, there’s been success by Irish rowers, the junior swimmers and equestrians. The Irish rowers and swimmers are on our (USOC) radar now. There’ll be challenges for the rowers because some of their medals came in non-Olympic events but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re performing in big races and it’s not defined by massive amounts of money. It is defined by great athletes in a very supportive environment with great coaches.
Can ‘smaller’ actually be something of an advantage to Ireland in a way?
Yes, because you don’t have to take people out of their home environment. For example, Billy Walsh is building the US boxing programme in Colorado Springs. A lot of the boxers are inner-city kids from Detroit and LA. There’s an adjustment process needed to adopt to the culture of a relatively small town. Here the Institute, the National Aquatic Centre and the National Indoor Arena are all, roughly, within a three-hour drive from anywhere in the country. That is a huge advantage. It means people don’t have to get on a plane. That’s one of the biggest problems we have in the US. Athletes always ask ‘do I have to get on a plane?’
Any other pluses here?
Again the size of the country means that Ireland’s ‘community of excellence’ can get together very easily and share ideas as they’ve done at HPX 2017. You don’t get that in America. Sports, and even some of the programmes within them, are, geographically, very spread out. Some of the best track and field athletes can be in Texas or California and Florida and their distance (running) programme is in Oregon and Boulder (Colorado). They don’t get to connect like athletes/coaches can in Ireland.
You noted that American Olympic sports greatly benefit from their universities’ sport system (NCAA). How?
It teaches them to race at a very young age. They race in their Regionals, State and Conference meets to get to NCAA Nationals. If they’re running 1500m they might have four rounds in each one of those. You’re challenged to race. It’s not about time-trialling, it’s about getting through the rounds. I’m not sure Irish athletes experience first-hand how to work their way – strategically and physically – through rounds.
There’s also a lot of money in the NCAA programmes, which is driven by college football and basketball revenues and athletes are also living in a high performance culture in colleges, which they carry on into their senior careers. I also think the ‘team element’ is very important in NCAA sport. They lose it a bit in athletics after college but in swimming they hold onto it. Their Olympic swim programme replicates a lot that they do in college swimming because they see the value of that ‘team’ element.
Finally tell us how USOC used technology to advance some aspects of your track and field programme ahead of Rio 2016,
We had two specific projects for throws and distance running. In distance running, where we’d seen a very small margin between winning and losing medals in London, we recognised that the altitude protocols for distance athletes were ad hoc. My colleague Professor Robert Chapman, the leader in this work, did blood tests and saw huge variants in athletes after altitude training. His research brain told him altitude is not a ‘one size fits all’ strategy so all of that training was personalised. In throws, we could have five men in the top six in the world in shot, for example, get three to an event but only one would medal. The same with our women. Our throwers were under-performing in major competitions so we looked at a radar-based technology called ‘TrackMan’. It’s used to track the flight of golf balls and we used some of our budget to have it adapted to monitor flight in shot and hammer. It was a bit of a risk because we didn’t know if the coaches would take it on but they did and we’re now looking to extend it to javelin and discus. The message is to be brave sometimes!