Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Team NI deserves to be treated better than this

Chris Bartley, Richard Chambers, Rob Williams and Peter Chambers of Great Britain celebrate with their silver medals during the medal ceremony for the Lightweight Men's Four final on Day 6 of the London 2012 Olympic Games

Should the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland be condensed into "Team GB" for the Olympic Games?

The title "Team GB" is at odds with the message from the Prime Minister David Cameron and from Lord Coe and the organisers of the London 2012. They encouraged everyone to play a role. Northern Ireland most certainly did.

When Mr Cameron visited the Bann Rowing Club in Coleraine, which provided two silver medals and one bronze medal for Team GB, he emphasised the inclusiveness of London 2012.

He paid tribute to those Northern Ireland companies whose expertise was called upon to help stage the Games. Also, the route of the Olympic torch and the opening and closing ceremonies rightly recognised the width and breadth of the UK's participation.

London 2012 united the United Kingdom as rarely any sporting event has ever done before. It is time therefore that the British Olympic Association reviewed the marketing tag "Team GB" even though the use of the full nomenclature - Great Britain and Northern Ireland - is a mouthful for commentators and cumbersome on competitors' vests.

Team Ireland included 13 competitors from Northern Ireland. Team GB had seven. They didn't come from no man's land, yet they might be forgiven for feeling that way as their birthplace seemed to be wiped off the map during the Olympics. How embarrassing to feel so excluded.

I doubt if another of the 200 countries in the Olympics would choose to treat a section of its territory in this way. The British Olympic Association should think again and call its team for the next games in Brazil, what it really is - Team United Kingdom.

That said, I was privileged to be at the Games. Not since the World Cup in 1966 has Britain enjoyed such a patriotic revival. London had an aura of friendliness. The people walked the streets with a smile on their faces.

The Olympics have lifted the spirits of people on both sides of the Irish Sea. Dismal summer be damned, dire economy be damned, London 2012 was an exhilarating experience for everyone. Britain's doom-laden media saw obstacles around every corner, but in the end there weren't any.

Gone at least for a fortnight was the impersonal, unwelcoming often impolite London we all know. The rat-race capital of the western world developed a softer face. The 70,000 volunteers who manned the streets and parks in central London and around the various venues for the Olympics behaved as if customer care really mattered to them.

My own abiding memory of the Olympics is of standing on The Mall within sight of Buckingham Palace, watching the 107 marathon finishers in the women's event cross the finishing line in front of me, their sinewy bodies exhausted and collapsing after 26 miles of running through the streets of London.

Nothing epitomises the courage and endeavour of Olympic athletes like the marathon. The spectators were rain-soaked but that didn't matter. They cheered every athlete from far-flung corners of the world. The Olympic ideal - the honour is not in winning but in taking part - was never better illustrated.

Why could it not be like that all the time, I kept thinking. Maybe it will be in future, because London would be a better place if the Olympic atmosphere prevailed.

The one imponderable, the one great fear, was that some terrorist group might do to London what happened in Munich in 1972 when 11 members of the Israeli team were murdered.

That nothing untoward happened was down to a massively expensive security operation. It is a sad reflection on the world today that such a peaceful all-embracing global event required so much protection. In London 2012, we have seen the world of sport at its magnificent best. Another generation should be encouraged to do even better.

Whether it was Bradley Wiggins on his bicycle, Katie Taylor in a boxing ring, or our medallists from the Bann Rowing Club, all of them should inspire the public at large to take more exercise, to be healthier and, as a consequence, to reduce the burden on the National Health Service. Unfortunately, one of the first budgets to be cut in an economic crisis is that for sports facilities in schools.

Perhaps one lasting legacy of London 2012 will be a change in priorities and more of a recognition that sport really matters.

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