As part of our Leading Sport series of interviews with those determining the future of sport in Ireland, we caught up with Miriam Malone who took up the position of CEO with Paralympics Ireland in May 2017.
Malone joined Paralympics Ireland from a position as Business Partnerships Manager with the FAI. She is deep in planning for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020 but before that, we do have the small matter of Ireland hosting its first ever major Championships in para-sport with the 2018 European Para-Swimming Championships coming to the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus next August
Sport for Business: Where your start come in the world of working within sport?
Miriam Malone: I always wanted to work in sport but was never quite sure in what area. After the leaving cert, I did a two-year course in marketing then went to Inchicore to do a course in sports management. I was lucky to be one of the first graduates from that course to go over the Sheffield Hallam University where they were way ahead of the curve in terms of sport science and a range of areas.
After graduating I travelled the world and worked in sports centres on my journey, including for a few months at the Canterbury Aquatic and Leisure Centre.
In Ireland, there was limited capacity to stepping up from staff in a centre to management. I had a Morrison visa to the US and having spent some summers and part of my travel year there working in sports centres and as a lifeguard, I thought that it would be good to go there to see what was possible.
I ended up in San Francisco where I spent five years and ended up as the Aquatics Director at the YMCA. That was my first opportunity to work in a new facility which at the time was quite unstructured in terms of programmes and which I was able to shape.
SfB: What was it then that brought you back to Ireland?
MM: All that time my Mum had been sending me clippings of things that might be of interest back home and one of those that really caught my eye was with Special Olympics Ireland.
When Ireland won the World Games in 2003, Mary Davis and Frances Kavanagh moved over to focus on that and Frances’ role as National Development Manager became open.
I came back to interview and got that role so moved back to Ireland. It was a perfect position for me at that time combining sport, management and special needs. My main focus was developing programmes for all the different sports and making sure our Irish athletes were well prepared for 2003.
I stayed on for a year after the Games and then took on a role as setting up the Kilkenny Sports Partnership as part of an expansion of the LSP network.
That role was multi-sport in an environment where hurling was somewhat dominant.
SfB: How did the move to the FAI come about?
I was getting married and my husband’s role was in Dublin so it was time for a move back to the capital. I had worked with a number of FAI people during the build-up to the World Games at Special Olympics and in Kilkenny and a new role was coming up so two weeks after Dermot proposed I was asked if I would be interested in interviewing for the role as grassroots manager.
I stayed for eleven years and ended up as Business Partnerships Manager, liaising with Sport Ireland, our local authorities, UEFA and the many more we worked alongside.
SfB: Then the chance to lead an organisation with as high a profile as Paralympics Ireland came up, an easy choice to switch?
MM: I saw the role, thought it was something I could do and was lucky enough to get it. It’s been a very exciting first six months on board.
SfB: Where is Paralympics Ireland now after a period of ‘rock star’ athletes and high achievement in London and Rio?
MM: We are focused on the elite side as part of a continuum within sport. There are a number of disability-specific sports NGB’s like IWA Sport and Vision Sport Ireland who run across that whole range of participation through to high performance.
All sports NGB’s have the responsibility to develop their own sport in Ireland for all participants, including those with a disability.
Where they have high-performance structures in place we welcome the inclusion of a Parasport element to this.
From a Paralympics perspective, we would work closely with all of them to share knowledge on competing at European or World level.
Depending on the structures within a sport to support athletes, our role can vary from one to another. We are the NGB for Para athletics and swimming so we go a little further down the continuum in terms of working with coaches and bringing athletes to that higher level in terms of development and competition preparation.
In other sports it is closer to the point of competing on a world stage that we would become involved.
SfB: The expansion of opportunity outside of the four-year cycle of the Paralympic Games has really developed over recent years. How important is it to be part of that through hosting next year’s Para-Swimming Championships
MM: We had never hosted an event of this magnitude before. It’s a great chance for athletes to compete at the highest level in their sport before their own family and hometown crowd.
Bridging the gap between the main Paralympic Games and giving a burst of publicity and understanding is really important. We are looking to inspire people to get involved not only for Tokyo but for Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028. Hosting the Swimming in Dublin will shine a light on Paralympic Sport that will have a really positive effect in that area.
SfB: Paralympics Ireland hosted the European Congress in Dublin three years ago. How important is that to be a contributor at an administration level as well as within the athlete cohort?
MM: One of the targets laid down by the world was to have a greater voice at international level. We are very well respected and it is important to use that to best effect in terms of representation.
Within two months of coming on board, I was put forward and elected to the Board of European Paralympics and that is an important part of the job.
Sharing knowledge at that level is really important.
SfB: We have seen a very high profile for athletes and a related change in the way we as a population treat disability. Is that something where Ireland and Britain are way ahead of in international terms?
MM: We are part of a growing movement but yes it has been stronger here. London was an important marker with the media coverage led by Channel 4 and there was the ongoing support beyond the Games.
The World Para Athletics Championships in 2017 was an indicator that 2012 was not just a one-off.
The emphasis is on the sport side and the nature of the athletes competing at the highest level but there was also a real focus on the athlete stories and how disability is not the only thing that defines them.
Showing what people can achieve, regardless of a physical disability is central to how Paralympic sport can have a real impact.
SfB: Is there sometimes a pushback from disability campaigners that by focusing on the real success stories it deflects away from those who have not made it to the very top?
MM: The idea is that role models are a good thing, that they can inspire by achieving at the very highest level. It’s not possible for everybody but we want to present the picture of what is possible.
SfB: It’s a time of great change within Paralympics Ireland, how is that going?
MM: We have a great board with a real variety of skills and expertise. John Fulham is great to have as Chairman as well. He has been involved at so many levels, as an athlete, on the board and more. He is a great support.
SfB: On the Business side you have long-term partnerships with Allianz and Flogas and now with Toyota. They were very much focused on Paralympics as their lead area within their overall Olympic and Paralympic partnership at Global level. What will that partnership look like over time?
MM: Allianz has been great over many years at developing the partnership and showing how it can have a real impact in so many different areas.
Having such major brands behind us is important. It’s exciting to have both very much aligned in terms of where we want to go as organisations together.
The question is always how can we collaborate, how can we build genuine activations that serve a common good between us.
Toyota is new as part of an eight-year commitment and looking forward that far is a real strength as well so we can plana and work together most effectively. they are on board with five of our athletes and it will be a really positive relationship, hopefully for us all, as we grow together.
We also have a number of other partnerships in the pipeline and Allianz are already on board with the Para-Swimming Championships.
SfB: What are the things on your desk that are most exciting to get stuck into every morning?
MM: The Games and the Swimming are obviously major milestones that take a lot of time but we are also very much focused on longer-term development.
We are in the early stages of a new Strategic Plan which will take us through to 2021. Consultation is underway and we will publish where it is that all of our stakeholders want us to be heading towards in May 2018.
Dublin 2018 will hopefully have eight competitors at the Games and planning for how we can accommodate the hundreds of athletes they will compete against is obviously a major element of where our time will be focused on in the coming months as well.
SfB: How challenging is education around classification?
MM: We have a great education programme around our athletes, coaches and classifiers. We had our first national forum in this area last month.
We have to be in line with international standards so that everyone knows where they are aiming when it comes to World level. If you get that wrong it can have a material impact in terms of judging where an athlete is in terms of competition but also indeed whether they will be able to compete at a European or World Games.
SfB: Have we gotten through to the public consciousness the difference between Special Olympics and Paralympics?
MM: Public awareness is much more heightened now. media coverage has been really important. There will be major events for both in Dublin in 2018 and promoting the fact that difference is OK, and that sport for those with different disabilities is different in itself will take another step forward as a result of the Special Olympics National Games and the European Para-Swimming Championships.
SfB: Finally, from a personal perspective, what would be your personal sporting highlights?
MM: The Opening Ceremony of the Special Olympics in 2003 was incredible. Walking into the stadium as the host nation, as the final group of athletes to come into this wall of noise and support was something none of us will ever forget.
Dublin 2018 and Tokyo 2020 will be very special and outside of those, I have something smaller scale which I am looking forward to. We had a group of family and friends involved in a triathlon in Lough Cultra last year and we are looking to make that bigger this year. It’s a way of bringing us closer together, with a purpose in mind, and what can be a better example of why sport matters.
Paralympics Ireland is one of the more than 230 organisations that play an active part in the Sport for Business community.
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Image Credit Brendan Moran, Sportsfile