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Cork athlete’s offensive tweet ruffles feathers

Last update - Sunday, December 1, 2013, 15:15 By Metro Éireann

Cork golden boy and world walking champion Robert Heffernan should face more than the wrath of social media for a recent offensive tweet he wrote after the removal of two Roma children from their families, anti-racism groups have said.

Sports Against Racism Ireland (Sari), Show Racism The Red Card and Pavee Point have criticised the “bizarre” silence and apparent lack of any official sanction by Ireland’s national sporting bodies after the gold medallist tweeted a controversial message in response to a news report that two fair-haired children had been taken away from Roma families at the end of October.
The children were returned to the families after it was proven that they were related.
Heffernan apologised for his tweet a couple of days later on television. Claiming he is now back in training and so unavailable to comment further, his agent said the situation was a misunderstanding and that it was time to move on.
“Immediately after he got slated on social media, he removed [his comments] because he realised he didn’t look into it fully,” said agent Derry McVeigh, who added that Heffernan had not been thinking about the ethnicity of those involved, but simply about the report that children had been kidnapped.
“He didn’t make any reference to a group of people. He just saw it as a child who had been taken away from his family. He’s just not a racist.”
Kevin McCue from Sari said the apology had focused on his regret at offending anybody and was not enough.
“He apologised for being caught, not for being racist,” said McCue, who also criticised the lack of any response from national governing bodies of sport, arguing that Heffernan should have been fined or officially sanctioned.
“[It seems] anybody is free to make any racist, outrageous statement without sanction. It’s just crazy,” he said.
Sari said the controversy once again illustrated the need for sports bodies to include equality and discrimination clauses in their constitutions based on the European Commission’s White Paper on Sport, which would force them to sanction athletes who violate them.
“Unless they put in these equality and discrimination clauses in the constitutions, they shouldn’t be funded by the State,” said McCue.
Aidan Hartnett, secretary of Heffernan’s athletics club Togher AC, would not comment on how the club had dealt with the athlete.
“I spoke to Rob about it but that is between the club and Rob,” he said. “Rob apologised for his tweet, and as far as the club is concerned that is water under the bridge.”
Hartnett said the club would have no problems complying with any equality and anti-discrimination rules. “We don’t discriminate against anybody down here,” he said.
Meanwhile, Athletics Ireland public relations manager Sinéad Galvin said Heffernan feels huge remorse for his tweet.
“Athletics Ireland does not condone racism in any way and recognises that Rob Heffernan made a serious mistake but Athletics Ireland has accepted this apology.”
Galvin pointed to parts of Athletics Ireland’s memorandum which set out objectives which include striving to ensure there is no discrimination in athletics, and taking “practicable” measures to stop discrimination.
Sarah O’Connor, chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sport, the representative body for the national governing bodies of sport, said its mandate is to comment on issues affecting sports as a whole, and that “issues relating to individual athletes are… a matter for the sporting body with which an athlete is associated” or has a “contractual relationship”.
O’Connor said she couldn’t see any sporting organisations objecting to equality and discrimination clauses in their constitutions.
“Our understanding is that a number already have such a clause,” she said. “However, we would be happy to work with Sari to develop the wording of an appropriate clause that could then be circulated to our membership for their individual consideration.”

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