Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Sport in Ulster is good for us in more than one way

Heroes: our golf champions McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke

The accolades continue to fly for sport in Northern Ireland. What is marketed rightly as the golfing capital of the world is now also home to one of the top eight rugby teams in Europe after Ulster qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals at the weekend.

So are our sporting organisations on a roll? Beyond Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Graeme Mc Dowell and Ravenhill rugby, could more be achieved? Or are the sporting headlines coloured with a tinge of hype and wishful thinking?

These thoughts crossed my mind at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards last week. It is 17 years since the first such occasion when I recall, as the then-editor of this newspaper, being privileged to present the principal award to the world champion boxer, Wayne McCullough.

More illustrious champions followed - Tony McCoy, Eddie Irvine and, in the past three years, Mc Dowell, McIlroy and now Clarke, recipient of the award on three occasions.

All the greats of Ulster sport have been recognised since - from soccer to GAA, from golf to motor-racing, from rugby to motorcycling.

More than that, so, too, have many backroom staff, often unsung heroes of local sport, including people of disability, such as paralympian Sally Brown, who have shrugged off their handicaps to win medals and honours both around the world and at home.

The Telegraph sports awards dinner is always a truly inspirational event, crossing the boundaries of politics, religion, cultural and social background.

Our leading sportsmen and women display a heart-warming empathy towards one another which defies all our past troubles and present differences. They set an example that Northern Ireland in general should follow.

Stormont talks of a shared future, but the reality is that we don't share very much. Rugby, soccer and gaelic clubs exist in parallel and apart.

Many clubs can barely make ends meet, yet don't co-operate with others in their neighbourhood.

On this small island, where so many sports are organised on an all-Ireland basis, the limitations for sporting excellence are obvious and still need more funding and support.

So what would it take to put Northern Ireland on an equal playing field with the outside world?

Answer: only an extra £13m per year between now and 2019, according to the Sports Matters plan drawn up by the Stormont Executive and Sport NI.

Indeed, the London Olympics will cost about 15 times what Northern Ireland will spend on sport in a whole decade.

Worse still, more and more people are becoming lazy couch-potatoes. Around 60% of the public were engaged in some form of sporting activity 20 years ago. Today that figure is less than 50%.

One-in-four young children is obese or overweight. Northern Ireland people are more inactive than most in the rest of the UK.

Funding for sport and leisure is an easy target for the financial hammer when a recession bites, yet it remains a tiny proportion of the overall Stormont budget.

Investment in sport produces surprisingly good returns for a modest outlay.

Northern Ireland is on top at golf because, aside from having the talent of so many great players, we have world-class courses and excellent coaches.

However, the same can hardly be said of other sports. Visit most towns in Ulster and you will still find a struggling sports club.

How sad, then, that there are young sportsmen and women out there who have the talent, but not the facilities, or the financial back-up, to fulfil their potential.

There are factors which cannot be easily defined and which go beyond funding, coaching and facilities.

For example, out of the adversity of Northern Ireland may have been born a special strength of character and determination to succeed.

Sporting success is also helping to promote more respect for our different cultural traditions.

Whatever it is, something is sparking in local sport. We may find other priorities for spending money in straitened times, but we should not underestimate the impact of winning on Northern Ireland's international image.

Creating a healthier society. Taking idle young people off the streets. Reducing crime. Instilling a sense of pride in us all. Attracting more tourists and helping to bridge community divisions.

These are prizes as glittering as any medal, which is why cutting public funding for sport and leisure makes no sense at all.

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