Can Northern Ireland have a golden future?
Local sprinter Jason Smyth shook up the athletics world last week when he became the first Paralympian to compete at the European Championships, reaching the semi-finals of the 100m.
But apart from the heroics of the visually-impaired City of Derry AC speedster, and a spirited performance by local girl Amy Foster in the Irish sprint relay team, Northern Ireland athletes were conspicuous by their absence from the Barcelona extravaganza.
Even little Wales chipped in to Great Britain’s record medal haul with gold and silver in the 400m hurdles thanks respectively to Dai Green and Rhys Williams.
Should that be a cause of concern for local athletics just two years ahead of the London 2012 Olympics?
Smyth — compared to Usain Bolt after Paralympic golds in Beijing at 100m and 200m — and middle distance starlet Ciara Mageean are the two stand-out local athletes who will probably figure at the 2012 Games and are expected to make a big impact before that at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October.
Mageean underlined her potential by taking silver in the 1500m at the recent World Youth Championships in Canada.
And the 18-year-old’s coach Eamon Christie maintains Northern Ireland athletics has a very bright future ahead despite the lack of numbers at the Europeans.
“There are some very good youngsters coming through. But it will be interesting to see how many of them push on to the next level,” he said.
“Currently we are doing every bit as well as Scotland and Wales in the juniors and most of the athletes on Irish Schools teams are actually from Ulster.
“Junior athletics in Northern Ireland is looking very, very promising.
“We have a lot of good 17 to 19-year-olds. But it’s what actually happens to them over the next two or three years that will let us know what we can expect from them in the long term.
“The transition from late teens to senior athletics is tricky because at that age some kids go to university, so they might give up the sport. Of course, some youngsters simply fall out of love with athletics and pack it in or move to other sports. Also the longer you are involved, injuries become more of an issue.
“All these factors have a massive bearing when, like us, you have a small pool of athletes.
“We have good youngsters like Katie Kirk, Joanna Mills, Christine McMahon, Emma Mitchell, Mark Patterson, Stephen Scullion and Adam Ingram. That would suggest Northern Ireland athletics is in a healthy state but the cupboard is bare at senior level and that’s why, apart from Jason Smyth, we didn’t make a big impact in the Europeans.”
Athletes from Northern Ireland — which competes as a separate entity in the Commonwealth Games — are, of course, eligible to declare for Britain or Ireland.
But Christie warned: “It’s hard for athletes from Northern Ireland to try and break into the Great Britain structure.
“Because we are quite far away, if an athlete from here wants to compete in Great Britain it means paying for a flight and a hotel.
“This is compounded by the fact that to catch selectors’ attention you need to be competing in GB week in, week out.
“I’ve seen Northern Ireland athletes in the past compete in the trials, get the required times and then not be picked for GB,” said Christie, who feels athletes in this country are badly let down in terms of facilities.
“Our facilities are poor,” he said. “The Mary Peters Track is suffering from years of wear and tear and is crying out for an upgrade.
“If we get a bit of snow, the Mary Peters Track closes. There’s nowhere for middle distance or endurance athletes to train indoors.
“I have been lucky enough to travel a fair bit in the last couple of years and even small towns in other developed countries have advanced indoor facilities with all the mod cons.”
Christie feels funding of athletes in Northern Ireland is a burning issue.
“There is not a lot of money for Northern Ireland athletes. Southern athletes get better public funding.
“Sports like soccer, rugby and GAA get better funding than athletics.
“Schools don’t promote athletics — it’s all about soccer, GAA, rugby and hockey. Every school potentially has a star athlete but it’s about trying to ignite that flame. Athletics is a real minority sport in Northern Ireland. But there is a lot of good work going on too, at clubs through volunteers.”
Athletics NI development manager Jackie McKernan, the former international discus thrower, is also optimistic about the years ahead.
McKernan said: “There are many outstanding young athletes coming through in a variety of age groups.
“So there are encouraging signs at the moment.
“The future for Northern Ireland athletes looks very bright.”