Sport for Business Leadership Interview – Miriam Malone

Miriam Malone was all set for her first Paralympic Games as CEO of Paralympics Ireland when Covid-19 struck and led to the postponement of the Games in Tokyo to next year.

She has been thrown into a world of shifting sands trying to maintain the hopes and dreams of athletes that were ready to peak but now have to pause.

We sat down virtually with Miriam over the weekend to talk through some of the bigger challenges we now face and how they can be overcome.

SfB: How are you doing personally with all of the changes thrust upon us?

MM: It has been intense!   I am coping well, to be honest. It is an interesting time to be involved in sport and one that will never be forgotten.

In our house, we are all in different rooms working away. Luckily my kids are older (11 and 12) so they’ve been great doing their school work and they’ve also set a task for themselves about the house each day like washing the car or planting seeds.

Getting out for exercise and fresh air whenever I can keeps me sane.

SfB: Was the announcement about the Games being postponed something of a relief?

MM: It was one we were waiting for and unquestionably the correct decision to postpone the games for the health and safety of all involved.

In some ways, it was a relief but the immediate reaction was one of disappointment for all of those athletes that had already done so much to be approaching their games peak and now they have to reset.

SfB: How have you been keeping in touch with athletes and on the logistics side of team preparation?

MM: Our staff team have been great ensuring that our athletes have regular contact and the most up to date information.

As well as our own two sports of Para Athletics and Para Swimming our Chef De Mission  Denis Toomey links with the team lead from all of the individual sports with updates from the International Paralympic Committee and advice that we are being given through the Department of Health, the WHO, Sport Ireland and our own Chief Medical Officer.

Luckily we had a very planned approach to the postponement of the games so we were immediately able to roll out our crisis plan and had anticipated a lot of the actions that we needed to take.

Our lines of communication are consistently open and are possibly busier than ever before. It makes a huge difference having a proactive and engaged staff group that have been working hard to make sure that no balls are dropped during this time.

SfB: How much of a disruption is it to have a five year and then a three-year cycle around your biggest event or is that just something that will work out over time?

MM: The natural cycle is a four-year games cycle so now we have two sets of games that will happen during the same games period where we will seek to prepare the athletes that are ready to challenge for medals now, at the same time as preparing the athletes that will be aiming for Paris as their podium challenge.

We have to adjust to the new reality of moving out all of the logistical arrangements that we had in place to an unspecified date next year while supporting the Irish team so that they are ready to go and compete at the highest level when sports re-start and it is safe to do so.

SfB: Have you discussed with your commercial partners how this will impact on their relationship with you and their support of Paralympics Ireland?

MM: We are working closely with our partners through our Head of Commercial, Trevor O’Rourke.

We are conscious that many of the partners have their own significant Corona related crisis to attend to in the short term but Trevor has moved quickly to keep the lines of communication open to begin planning for the 2021 Games.

We are lucky that we have close relationships with all of our partners and that we are able to approach this from a position of co-operation and partnership.

Our partners are involved with Paralympics Ireland because of their love for the sport, for the athletes and for the ideals of the movement and this will continue to be the theme of future conversations.

SfB: Do you have any indication of whether it will be a straight 12-month delay to the Games?

MM: No indication as yet except that the plan is to have the Games before the end of summer 2021.

It is a massive logistical operation to move the date of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. There is the global sporting calendar, athlete qualifications, warm-up events, classification and so many other contingencies that need to be considered from a sporting context along with the logistics of the event, commercial partnerships, venue bookings, accommodation, broadcast windows and more

We will just have to wait and see what that looks like and be ready to adapt.

SfB: Will this have an impact on your own programmes looking to promote elite sport to people with a disability?

MM: Our members and stakeholders – disability sports organisations like the Irish Wheelchair Association and Vision Sports Ireland;  Cara, the  Local Sports Partnerships and National Governing Bodies do a great job in promoting and fostering grassroots participation in sport for people with a disability, while in Paralympics Ireland we cater for the high-performance element.

With the shutdown of sport currently, we will certainly have to take some time to adjust now.  From our side there is no high-performance group training, replaced instead by individual maintenance, mobility and strength and conditioning and regular liaison with our sport science and medical service providers.

We can pledge to our athletes that we will do everything we can to continue to support elite athletes with a disability to win medals at the Paralympic Games.  The Tokyo Games in 2021 will be a really positive event for all of us to look forward to, where our top Paralympic athletes will showcase to the world their sporting achievements that will no doubt be an inspiration to others.

SfB: How do you feel that sport, in general, has responded to the crisis?

MM: We have been working very closely with Sport Ireland, the Olympic Federation of Ireland, Sport Institute Ireland and all of our own stakeholders who have been really supportive.

It has been a really positive response from sport overall, every decision is motivated by the health and safety of athletes and spectators.

The sports community is a great one, we can all do our part to follow WHO, government and HSE guidelines and help “flatten the curve”.

Various innovative ideas are evident coming through social media with so many keeping active and healthy individually – we may very well have a fitter population by the end of this.

SfB: Do you feel that there will be much of a difference, other than a packed schedule when things get back to normal?

MM: I expect it will take some time for everything to get back to normal. We are likely to have a busy sports calendar in 2021, there will be financial implications and performance implications as events are prioritised based on the new schedule.

The full ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis remain to be seen but I think many will have had the opportunity to reflect and focus on what is important to them.  Examples of true human spirit and support are evident.

I am confident that with the collaboration and teamwork of our staff, athletes, support staff, volunteers, partners and funding agencies, we will be ready to overcome any challenges together.

Over the coming days and weeks Sport for Business Interviews coming up will be with John Gillick of AIG on the impact for sponsors, with one of our athletes on how she has been impacted, with a leading sports psychologist on the ways in which athletes and all of us can cope and with one of our leading agencies on how their world has been impacted.  We are exploring ways of carrying these in words as we have done so far but also as live interviews where we can all get more involved…

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