Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Sports Minister still saying no to big party for our Games heroes

Crowds in Trafalgar Square
Crowds in Trafalgar Square
Refusal: Caral Ni Chuilin will only hold a private reception

One million people thronged the streets of London to celebrate the achievements of Team GB at the Olympics — but you won’t be seeing anything similar in Belfast.

Despite calls for Northern Ireland’s Olympic and Paralympic heroes to be celebrated together with an open air event, Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin has effectively ruled one out.

Northern Ireland is still revelling in the feelgood factor following unprecedented success by our Olympians, who bagged five medals, and our Paralympians, who return home with a magnificent seven medals.

Support for a universal public homecoming for all athletes from both events — regardless of their national affiliation — has snowballed in recent days.

But the minister is standing by her decision to host a private Stormont reception for both sets of athletes on Thursday. On Monday she again declined to throw an open air celebration for our Team GB and Team Ireland athletes.

A spokesperson for Ms Ni Chuilin’s department said: “A special ministerial reception is being held at Parliament Buildings on September 13, 2012 in honour of Olympic and Paralympic athletes from the North who competed at the London 2012 Games to publicly acknowledge their significant sporting achievements.

“The department has no plans for any other public homecoming event although we understand that some district councils are considering such events.”

Jackie Patton, who sailed for Team GB at the 1988 Seoul Games, said she is bewildered at the apparent reluctance to stage a public homecoming.

“I don’t understand why our Sports Minister hasn’t had something in place for all our athletes coming back,” the Olympian told the Belfast Telegraph.

“It’s all about creating a legacy. We have this sporting excellence in Northern Ireland, why hide it?

“Team GB are flaunting it, what is wrong with us here?”

Olympic medal-winning rowing trio Alan Campbell and brothers Peter and Richard Chambers — all of whom represented Team GB — attended a homecoming on their return from the Olympics to Coleraine last month, while boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon of Team Ireland enjoyed an open-top bus tour of Belfast.

The rowers were in London for the public party on Monday, with Campbell tweeting: “Thank you to all the games makers, the army, the police and supporters for making this the best experience ever!

“You make Britain great!”

Meanwhile, Team Ireland Paralympic athletes — who won 16 medals — received a rapturous reception at Dublin Airport.

Ireland’s gold medal winners included Eglinton sprinter Jason Smyth, Glengormley runner Michael McKillop and Seaforde swimmer Bethany Firth.

A reception for the athletes will take place on Friday, and the medal winners will appear on RTE’s Late Late Show that night.

The lack of Olympic atmosphere in Belfast was a far cry from the scenes in London and Dublin.

When Irish Olympians returned home last month, thousands attended a public event in Dublin city centre at which Belfast boxing duo Barnes and Conlon showed off their bronze medals.

Olympic rowers Campbell and Peter Chambers have backed calls for a united public event, as have Conlon and Paralympics star McKillop.

Back in 1972 Belfast city centre was packed with tens of thousands of people turning out at the City Hall to cheer Mary Peters’ return following her gold in the pentathlon at the Munich Games.

There were similar scenes when former boxer Barry McGuigan brought home a world title.

He said: “In London, in 1985, I became World Featherweight Champion, but of far more importance to me personally was the fact that my homecoming to Belfast was welcomed by Protestant and Catholic fans alike.”

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