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Numbers game will always be against NI at Olympic Games

By Steven Beacom

Published 20/08/2016

Despair: Richard Chambers (left) was left dejected in Rio
Despair: Richard Chambers (left) was left dejected in Rio

In the 2012 Olympics, there were five medals for Northern Ireland. Four years on, it is now unlikely that any will be coming to the place we call home.

It is true that we were spoiled in London by the record-breaking haul for the country, with rowers Richard Chambers and Peter Chambers winning silver and Alan Campbell claiming bronze for Team GB and boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan winning bronze for Team Ireland, but even so there is a sense of disappointment that Northern Ireland has not secured any podium places this time around in Rio.

Those five were again expected to be our best hopes and while Conlan was incredibly unfortunate to be knocked out by crazy judging before the semi-final stage, the other fab four didn't get close to challenging for a medal. Nor to date has anyone else, truth be told.

So, does it come down to a lack of sporting facilities in Northern Ireland or perhaps not enough money being invested?

Or were we just expecting too much of our sports stars in Rio? After all in the history of the summer Games, Northern Ireland has only ever won three gold medals with legendary athlete Dame Mary Peters taking the top prize in 1972 and hockey heroes Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood gold medal winners in 1988.

According to Olympics expert Simon Shibli, who works closely with the home country Sports Councils, it comes down to numbers.

And he suggests in those terms Northern Ireland is doing pretty well for itself at the greatest show on earth.

"You have to be aware that you are a relatively small part of the UK in population numbers," said Mr Shibli, a Professor at Sheffield Halem University.

"There are seven billion people on the planet of whom 11,000 go to the Olympic Games so your chances of being an Olympian are one in 650,000 in round numbers.

"In Northern Ireland you have a population of somewhere between 1.8million and 2million. Statistically in global terms you are expected to produce three Olympians yet you are producing a lot more than that so in that respect you are punching above your weight.

"Some of those from Northern Ireland, who are at the Olympics, are competitive. They may not win any gold medals, but there may be silver and bronzes as was the case in 2012 and this year there were personal bests. That is the context you have to look at it in.

"Also the nature of elite sport is fine margins where medals are concerned and then there is the roll of the dice. You could see that with what happened to Michael Conlan, who, had he got through his quarter-final fight, would have won a medal."

Asked how much of a difference it would make if more money was thrown at Northern Ireland sport, Shibli, who has worked with Sport NI, said: "Money is a catalyst. Cycling has had about £30million over a four-year cycle and obviously Team GB has enjoyed great success in that sport in Rio.

"In addition to the athletes, I was going through the accounts of British Cycling recently and they have 64 full-time staff working on the World Class programme. It is almost the size of Sport NI with its turnover and employment levels."

In terms of creating better sporting facilities, the Professor stated that surprisingly does not always lead to more success, though sports should always endeavour to ensure their athletes operate and train in the best conditions.

The next Olympics are in 2020 in Tokyo. It is to be hoped that Northern Ireland sports stars will be inspired and bring back some treasure. Gold would be glorious but after drawing a blank so far in Rio, silver or bronze would do quite nicely.

Belfast Telegraph

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