Not long now until elite athletes from all over the world descent on Rio de Janeiro to test their individual or collective skills in the ultimate sporting arena.
The story of pretty much every competitor’s rise to international selection will include words such as: talent, dedication, courage, determination, support, perhaps an ounce or two of luck… and money.
For someone like me, a moderate club cricketer, there was an expectation and acceptance that participating in amateur sport involved paying for the privilege because you played for the sheer love of the game. But for those blessed with far greater ability, the opportunity to rise through the ranks must involve a much more significant financial investment—kit, equipment, facilities, coaching, travel, accommodation et al….
It is perfectly understandable that those potentially destined for greatness in sports which have massive exposure on a world stage are almost certain to have access to the kind of funds that will enable full potential to be reached; and in certain cases achievement can bring financial rewards that would justify all the sacrifices (as well as being way beyond the imagination of your average left-arm spin bowler).
Those sacrifices still exist even if your particular talent lies in a less “popular” (if that’s the right word) game; one where representing your country is no guarantee of recognition away from your sporting circle, or media coverage, let alone monetary gain. In fact, it is possible for it to cost more to remain at the summit than the actual climb itself.
The Ireland netball squad is the perfect example.
In certain parts of the world, netball is a major attraction; watched and played in huge numbers, with coverage, sponsorship and funding all readily available for those talented enough to compete for their respective international dress.
That’s not the case in Ireland though.
To play for Ireland at netball, you need to have all the qualities listed in the second paragraph, but you also have to have very deep pockets because these girls pay for every single step of their international adventure. The majority also give their time to trying to develop the sport in and beyond Dublin, to ensure that their efforts create strong foundations upon which netball can develop and prosper.
In recent times, the squad has been able to play enough games to secure a world ranking. That ranking was no.26 until the start of this month, when a series of solid performances at the Netball Europe Open in Newcastle, which included a crucial win against a higher-ranked USA team, resulted in an improved ranking of no.25.
One place may not sound much, and no.25 may seem a long way away from the likes of Australia, New Zealand, England and Jamaica, but given the number of girls that play netball in Ireland, and the amount of commitment it takes to raise the funds simply to have a chance of competing, any rise up the rankings is a truly remarkable accomplishment.
There are very few tournaments in which Ireland can participate against teams of a similar level—the kind of teams that Ireland need to be playing to test themselves and to progress. Netball is becoming a worldwide sport (future Olympic inclusion after 2020 is even a possibility), but the geographic spread of countries ranked close to Ireland means that those limited opportunities may be thousands of miles away.
One such tournament is the Nations Cup, which is being held in September… in Singapore. The competition is played in an incredible atmosphere; girls who could walk unnoticed through Dublin will be mobbed and asked for autographs and photos by youngsters who are simply passionate about netball—and all this in a country ranked no.17 in the world.
True, there are sports with which Ireland is more readily associated, but the netball squad represent their country with no less pride than any rugby union or football (for example) international. It’s just that they seem to have to travel several thousand miles for their talent to be recognised.
I accept I am biased. I have met the girls, have got to know a few of them quite well, and am lucky to have been asked to do a few interviews and articles over the past year or so. I wish I was wealthy enough to sponsor each and every member of the squad the €1,000 or so it will cost each of them to fly to Asia and give their all for their country. There is a fundraising page—the link is below—I’ve made a donation… it would be fantastic if one or two of you would consider doing the same; I can guarantee any contribution will be massively appreciated.
Come on you girls in green!