GAA Football

Sports bodies too quiet in fighting their corners in pandemic: Aidan O'Rourke

Aidan O'Rourke believes sports bodies have been too quiet in fighting their respective corners during the pandemic. The Queen's Performance Sports Manager also praised Dale Farm's dedication to local sport following their renewal of their kit sponsorship deal with the university

ARMAGH’S All-Ireland winning defender Aidan O’Rourke has lambasted the silence of sports bodies across Ireland and says it’s a “scandal” access to outdoor sport has been “cut off” to people at a time when its importance has never been greater.

With the re-introduction of strict lockdown laws in both jurisdictions on the island coming into effect to stymie the ubiquitous threat of Covid19, O’Rourke feels government planning since the first lockdown last March has been “lazy” and “beyond logic”.

Far from being complacent about the potential deadliness of the highly transmissible disease that has claimed the lives of over 3,000 citizens on the island of Ireland, O’Rourke maintains juvenile sport “should never have been paused” and doesn’t know how urban centres, particularly socially and economically areas, have coped with the series of lockdowns.

“The big argument that hasn’t been made yet is that there is no recognition at government level of the value of sport,” said O’Rourke, who is Sports Performance Manager at Queen’s University.

“In the early stages it was understandable, undoubtedly, in terms of lockdown to make sure they minimized the transfer of the virus while trying to understand what could be done and what safeguards could be put in place.

“When we moved out of the first lockdown at the end of June and the return to sport was mandated under strict protocols – non-contact, pods of 15, etc., – at that point, there was a clear understanding of what endangered people and what was good for people’s overall well-being.

“Anybody with children understands the value of sport and sport doesn’t necessarily mean going to play a match or a training session as people would envisage it. It’s getting out into the space with their friends which is a massive part of their overall well-being.”

O’Rourke, who coaches three underage teams at his local GAA club Dromintee while also helping to prepare Armagh’s stars of tomorrow in both the men and women’s game, is one of a growing number of high-profile sports figures who is at odds with the blanket approach of restrictions.

Former Down ace and Mayobridge underage coach Benny Coulter has voiced his concerns over the debilitating impact the sporting restrictions were having on his own club, while figures from the soccer community Kenny Shiels, Gary Hamilton and Marc Smyth have stressed the mental and physical importance of allowing children and young people to play outdoors in spite of the pandemic.

Stephen Atherton of John McNally Solicitors has launched a legal challenge against the continued prohibition of children’s right to play outdoor sport.

Currently, outdoor sport for young and disabled people is still allowed in Tier 4 areas of England.

In relation to the GAA playing off the club and county championships in desperately tight time-frames earlier this year, O’Rourke noted: “There were other interests at play here. The phrase I kept hearing was: ‘Get the club season finished so the county season could kick in.’

“That phraseology betrayed what sport is about. I understand if a sporting body is not generating funds the GAA, as we know it, is not going to sustain itself for very long.

“But there was absolutely no reason why juvenile activity had to pause at any stage. It wasn’t contributing to the spread of the virus at all.

“Sport plays a massive role in people’s daily lives, it builds healthy habits. You think of kids at home, when sport is taken away from them, they spend four or five hours in front of the PlayStation, they stop to eat – if they do stop to eat – they’re on their phones, or they’re studying.

“Coaching and Games staff weren’t furloughed in the south, whereas ours in the six counties were. We couldn’t do cul camps in the summer whereas they had them in the south. There was no primary school coaching when the kids went back to school because in the six counties all the Coaching and Games staff were furloughed, and yet it continued in the south. There is no sense of value of these people.”

A big advocate of women’s GAA and college sport in general, O’Rourke was miffed at the fact no games in the Third Level sector took place in 2020, when there were clear opportunities to play.

“I’m angry and that hasn’t dipped a percentage point from the start to now,” said O’Rourke.

“I understood the lockdown at the start, but the learnings are there. It’s lazy. What are the people representing sport doing? Where’s our voice in all of this?

“We have learnt how safe outdoor sport is; how is it when we’ve learnt all that and yet we’re still taking the same approach from a government perspective as we did in March? That baffles me. That is beyond any logic.

“And you consider people in urban areas, I can’t understand how they're getting through this. It’ s been a huge challenge. I live in the countryside, I can go on walks, I’ve a big enough garden to kick football. But the very basic human right to move about and exercise was virtually taken away.”

All sporting bodies, including the Northern Ireland Forum for Sport, an umbrella body for over 70 sports here, say they are in constant communication with the Stormont Executive, but there has been little in the way of progress as the broad brushstrokes of lockdown appear to illustrate.

“The bigger picture was missed insofar as that opportunity to engage with sport safely under the right guidance and protocols would play a massive part in returning us to normal, in a safe way, because it is quite clear there is negligible transfer of the virus in involved in the actual playing of the sport.

“Now, if the people who are making these decisions are concerned about people’s habits around sport – travelling in the same car, using changing rooms – well, they need to come out and say that, that they don’t trust people.

“They don’t trust people to follow protocol properly – and that is a slight on the work that has gone into bringing sport back. Volunteers have spent hundreds of hours to make sure protocols are in place. So the only reason to not allow it is the people making the decisions don’t trust people to do it safely.

“But yet, they trust us to go to school, to go to work, to go shopping – there’s a lot of trust when money is involved – but when people’s well-being is involved, there’s not the same trust.

“I work in sport, basically my life revolves around sport. My social time and volunteer hours are involved in sport and I haven’t heard a reasonable, consistent voice for sport in all of this. It’s an after-thought, it’s the poor relation. All these decisions are made and somebody seems to say at the end of a meeting, or maybe a day after a meeting: ‘So what does that mean for sport?’

“It’s a case of: ’No, you can’t do that either.’ Nobody understands the value of sport and yet, whenever we get out the other end of this, when reports are written and when government policies are realigned, I can guarantee there is going to be huge investment in lifestyle, health and well-being.

"That will be the upshot because you can’t predict what virus is coming next, but what you can do is provide a strategy for it, and that is trying to create a healthier society, better habits and routines that will sustain people, that will build immune systems. That means investing in the education of health as opposed to reactive policies in terms of more beds, more investment in treatment for obesity, diabetes… What will come from this is the value of investment in health and sport in order to build a healthier society.”


Queen’s GAA receives a welcome boost as Dale Farm Protein Milk signs up to two-year sponsorship extension


LEADING dairy company Dale Farm has been announced a two-year extension to their kit sponsorship deal with Queen’s University men’s and women’s Gaelic football teams.

The sponsorship will also see the company continue to supply squads with Dale Farm Protein Milk, aiding athlete recovery following training and competition.

“We are extremely thankful to Dale Farm, an incredibly valued and long-term partner of Queen’s Sport, for their continued support,” said Queen’s Performance Sport Manager Aidan O’Rourke.

“After a difficult year because of the on-going Covid19 pandemic and the uncertainty that comes with that, the sponsorship commitment is a huge lift for our teams.”

On behalf of Dale Farm, Aisling Bremner said: “The Covid19 pandemic has brought grassroots and University sport to a standstill with some or no matches, and restrictions on training and development. With so many tough announcements this year, Dale Farm, a farmer-owned dairy business, is committed to continuing our support of grassroots sport which means so much to our local community through these times. It’s our pleasure to extend this partnership with Queen’s Sport and to be announcing some positive news.”

Dale Farm demonstrated its commitment to supporting local sport by extending its sponsorship of Queen’s GAA, as well as the Irish FA, Ulster GAA and Athletics NI.

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