Leading Sport – Matt English

In the latest of our Leading Sport series, in association with our Partners in Leadership PwC, Sport for Business sat down with the Chief Executive of Special Olympics Ireland, Matt English to talk about ability and disability, athletes, volunteers, staff engagement, funding, trolling and middle aged men in Lycra…

Tell us a little about where Special Olympics is in 2017.

We recently completed our 2020 strategy. Our vision has been tweaked and summarises nicely what we are about:

“To drive and support a quality year-round sports programme that is embedded in local communities, resourced by vibrant and strong leaders and offers health and wellbeing opportunities to athletes with an intellectual disability from four years of age upwards.”

In 2017, we offer 15 sports. Almost 9,000 athletes train weekly at one or more of our 352 registered clubs. We offer year round leagues in a number of sports and participate in World Summer and Winter Games in addition to European Games. Health Promotion and well-being in addition to Young Athletes (from age 4) are two relatively new initiatives which we are very excited about. We also run an Athlete Leadership programme which over 700 athletes have engaged to develop other skills not directly linked to sport.

How successful was this year’s National Collection Day and how important is that in your overall budget?

Special Olympics is a sports organisation. We are also a charity. We are heavily dependent on the generosity of so many including Foundations, Corporations, and Community Based fundraising activities as well a range of government agencies in both the North and South of Ireland to fund our organisation.

Our Collection Day is vitally important and funds approximately 12% of the annual running cost of Special Olympics Ireland. Last year we raised €600,000. We expect to be close to that figure again in 2017. It takes several weeks to get all the money in, counted and banked. We are very grateful for all the support.

What are the major events that are on the horizon at present for Special Olympics athletes?

We are just over 12 months away from Ireland Games in June 2018 and we expect it to be the largest sporting and humanitarian event in Ireland next year. 1,500 athletes will take part and 3,000 volunteers will help run the event, which returns to Dublin for the first time since 2002.

In order to be selected for Ireland Games, our athletes are currently competing in Regional Advancement Events in 13 sports. There are over 50 such events across all five regions and they will be concluded by the end of June. Beyond that we are building towards the World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019 and 26 athletes represented Team Ireland at the Special Olympics World Winter Game back in March. It’s a four-year cycle for us, so there is huge activity in every year.

What is the size and scale of the organisation at grassroots level?

Special Olympics Ireland continues to grow and develop. Today we offer 15 different sports as well as additional programmes like Health & Well-being, Athlete Leadership and our Young Athlete programme is in pilot phase.

Currently we have almost 9,000 registered athletes who are registered to one or more of our 352 clubs. On our database, we have 25,000 registered volunteers. During 2016, 7,147 volunteers were active and we are pleased to have 4,155 certified coaches supporting our programme.

How important is it in societal terms to give people with learning disabilities an outlet in sport?

We understand that there are 42,000 people with an intellectual disability on the island of Ireland. According to the 2016 SOPHIE Report, researchers at Dublin City University found that Special Olympics athletes reported a better quality of life than people with intellectual disabilities who do not take part in Special Olympics.

The Special Olympics Programmes Health Impact Evaluation led by DCU’s School of Nursing and Human Sciences showed that programme participants were found to be more active, physically fitter and had a greater sense of well-being.

Our athletes benefit hugely from participation in our programme. Health and fitness are important factors. Inclusion and mental well-being are also very important. Athletes make friends and grow in self-confidence. We also see tremendous benefits for the families and local communities who appreciate the positive impacts of seeing our athletes achieve and be the best that they can be.

Unfortunately, persons with an intellectual disability are more prone to suffer from depression, more likely to be obese, more likely to have medical issues and historically have led sedentary lifestyles and less likely to find work, get married and have families. Special Olympics is a beacon of light for many people with an intellectual disability and provides an invaluable role in society.

What would you say to those who would criticise Special Olympics Sport as being one of ‘everyone’s a winner’ and not being ‘real’ sport?

I truly believe that everyone’s a winner who plays or participates in sport. The benefits of participation are incredible.

As highlighted above, only 26 athletes represented Ireland at the recent Winter Games. We would expect to have a team of 80 athletes participate in the World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi. Up to 5,000 athletes would have entered into advancement competitions with the hope of qualifying.

Special Olympics division our sport based on ability. Under this model, every athlete irrespective of their ability should expect fair competition with athletes of a similar ability. Typically athletes compete in groups of eight and there are placement ribbons from position eight to fourth followed by bronze, silver and gold medal awards.

We value division ten athletes as much as division one. Both have an equal chance of representing their club, region or country. Of course, they do have to advance through competition and like in many other sports, their division status will most likely change over time.

At the recent World Winter Games in Austria, an internet troll mocked Special Olympics and a congratulatory message that Arnold Schwarzenegger posted on Facebook. Arnold viewed it as a “teaching moment” and it is worth googling for further insight to the essence of Special Olympics.

How big a place does Ireland have in international terms within the Special Olympics movement?

Ireland is very well regarded within the Special Olympics global movement. Ireland was the first country to host the World Games outside of the US back in 2003. Participation levels exceed 20% in Ireland compared to 2-3% globally.

Irish staff and volunteers are well represented on a number of European and International committees. Mary Davis, joint founder of Special Olympics Ireland, is currently CEO of Special Olympics International. Mary is the first person from outside of the United States to act as CEO of the organisation, which was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in part because of her sister Rose’s intellectual disability and the whole Kennedy family’s love of sport. 

Ireland is truly top of the world in Special Olympics terms. It is also very satisfying that already 709 of our registered athletes have embraced our Athlete Leadership programme. This will help to ensure that we are connected at a grass roots level and that our athletes’ voices will be heard more and more.

How important has it been to have long term commercial partners in eir, Gala  and Aer Lingus?

As a sports organisation and charity, long-term partnerships are critical and much more preferable than “Charity of the Year” models where everyone puts a lot of work in and the legacy evaporates relatively quickly.

Our two main funding partners are Sport Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland. We have relationships with other government bodies like the HSE, the Department of Social Protection and An Pobal. We also rely heavily on Foundations like Iris O’Brien, JP McManus and the Ireland funds.

We truly value our corporate partners. eir (formerly Eircom) have been a partner for an incredible 32 years. We have grown and developed together and we could not ask for a better partnership.

In recent years Gala Retail have come on board and signed a long term contract. Other key partners include J&J Group and Aer Lingus.

Many of our corporate partners have developed significant staff engagement through volunteering in clubs or at events to participating in fun fundraising initiatives. We have space for more corporate partners and are working on a very exciting Young Athlete package which will have wide appeal.

What are some of the things that are most exciting on your desk at the moment?

I am very excited about our new Young Athlete programme which is in pilot phase. This is a play and sport activity programme for children with an intellectual disability between the ages of 4-7 years. It will help to integrate them as future athletes into our regular programme.

I am equally excited about the Ireland Games coming back to Dublin in 2018. I look forward to our athletes competing and highlighting their abilities and spirit in the National Sports Campus.

Finally, in the weeks ahead we have the final Regional advancement competitions, leagues in eight different sports drawing to a close, season end awards and selections for the Ireland Games to take place. Never a dull moment!

What will success look like for Special Olympics between now and 2020?

New athletes, a vibrant Young Athlete programme, successful participation in Ireland and World Games.

Increased opportunities for our athletes in sport and other development activities.

Enhanced and new corporate partnerships, a strong balance sheet and we would like to also further strengthen our governance and roll out our club recognition awards (club mark) to all our affiliated clubs.

Tell us a little of your own history and what has brought you to your role at Special Olympics?

I’m from a large family of nine from Wexford. Six brothers and two sisters. I lived in the parish of Rathnure where hurling was and still is the main religion. I’ve always had a passion for a wide range of sports.

My second youngest brother John (RIP) had special needs. He also had a strong passion for sport and I witnessed first-hand how participation in sport improved his quality of life.

I am an accountant by trade having worked for a number of multi-nationals over the years. In 2001, I was privileged to become the Chief Financial Officer of the 2003 World Summer Games which were hosted in Ireland. Those Games were historic on a range of levels and have left a wonderful legacy. They cost €60million.

In 2008, I was equally privileged to replace Mary Davis as CEO of Special Olympics Ireland. I continue to be inspired on a daily basis by our athletes, their families and our dedicated volunteers.

What are your own sporting passions?

I watch all types of sport though at 53 my options to play are getting more limited.

I still play 8-a-side soccer on a Wednesday night. Recently I took up Pilates which I do once a week on a Monday. I try to do two 5-6 km runs per week and if not I get the equivalent in walks in no matter what the weather is. I endeavour to play one game of golf in per week and managed to get my handicap cut by 2 to 12 last year. I intend to get cut to single figures but may have to wait until retirement to find the time.

I have completed three marathons in recent years and was happy to break four hours. I’m cured of marathons now. I may join the “MAMIL” (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) brigade but need to invest in a good bike. I also hope to enter the “swim-a-mile” programme next year.

I do also intend to climb Kilimanjaro in the next few years but have not made any firm plans as yet. The last word must be that I am a proud “Yellow-Belly”.

And as a final word we asked was their one thing that Matt would like to highlight about the work that Special Olympics does.

People lead such busy lives. We have some of the busiest people in the world volunteering for Special Olympics. Next year offers a unique opportunities for people to volunteer and support the 2018 Special Olympics Ireland Games.

I know that there will be no regrets. In life, I believe our athlete’s oath is relevant for everyone and I’m delighted to share below:

“Let me win
But if I cannot win
Let me be brave in the attempt”

Read our previous interviews in this series including with Director General of the GAA Páraic Duffy, Minister of State for Sport Patrick O’Donovan and Pentathlon Ireland CEO Darragh Cunningham.

Join us at the studios of RTÉ on June 14th for a morning of learning about how brands, sport and media are developing new partnerships in an era dominated by sports and brand led content.

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