Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

From the playground to top of podium

Ambitious Antoinette determined to provide the best facilities to help our athletes shine

Antoinette McKeown
Antoinette McKeown with Kelly Gallagher

Antoinette McKeown hails from a family of 10. For as long as the Silverbridge woman can remember she has been watching sport at one level or another.

She continues to do so today with her 17 and 14 year-old sons active in gaelic games, football and golf.

Then there's Glenavon, who she follows on a regular basis. Ms McKeown radiants a warm glow when the Lurgan outfit's recent Irish Cup final success at Windsor Park is mentioned.

That's the personal sporting life.

She also has a professional one as the chief executive of Sport Northern Ireland.

The county Armagh lady has been in the post for nine months and this is her first major interview since what, at the time, was a surprise appointment.

McKeown, previously chief executive of the Consumer Council, was brought in to shape the future of the organisation and deliver a new strategy for sport here.

She is growing into the role and is adept at throwing in sporty sound bites during our conversation.

'From the playground to the podium' is one with a certain ring to it when discussing the huge numbers and different skill sets Sport NI are determined to help, cater for and inspire.

McKeown is also quick to pay tribute to those who work daily with her in Belfast and beyond, knowing all too well it is a team game and for targets to be met everyone needs to be on the same page.

That is not always the case with public bodies in Northern Ireland.

"The strongest asset that Sport NI has is its staff and what is really exciting about this role is harnessing that commitment, energy and expertise for sport," she says, before speaking fondly of her relationship with Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin and the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

"We are embarking on a new strategy which will look to put sport in Northern Ireland in a really healthy place," she adds.

"We are bringing Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) in house and we are revamping Tullymore, our national outdoor centre which will help make Sport NI one of the best development bodies for sport in these islands.

"We want to see better facilities and there is a leadership role for us to be ambitious for all our sporting bodies and sports people.

"It's not about Sport Northern Ireland, it's about sport in Northern Ireland."

See what I mean about those sound bites.

SINI, operating in Jordanstown, was previously a joint company between University of Ulster and Sport NI and works with champion performers like cyclist Martyn Irvine, boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan and Winter Paralympics gold medal winner Kelly Gallagher. It's a success story.

"We are bringing it wholly into Sport NI so that we can streamline our strategy and focus on a very clear business case for SINI working with Northern Ireland's top athletes and giving them the range of services that SINI offers," says McKeown, quickly adding that the word streamlining does not mean job losses or redundancies.

"We will continue to work out of the University of Ulster. Queen's University also has elite sports facilities and a knowledge hub and we want to learn from them and share our knowledge. We are lifting our heads and looking around so that all of us together can learn and move forward."

McKeown seems genuinely excited and enthused by sport, rather than an official going through the motions, and in the meeting and greeting stakes she has few equals.

The dark-haired lady, who has poetry framed on her office walls, knows however that she will be ultimately judged on what she and Sport NI can achieve in terms of participation and those podium places in the years to come.

The new Sport NI strategy will be called Sport United – Together Better.

"It's a reflection that sport is open to all and there are no boundaries or barriers, but also that working together in partnership we do it better," she states.

"In the next six months we are going to be talking to all the governing bodies with a view to getting buy-in for our new strategy,

"We will make a big announcement around sporting facilities and we are launching our Sporting Ambassadors programme ensuring our elite athletes and team players give something back to local communities and inspire young people to be the best they can be regardless of what it is.

"Sport crosses boundaries that many other sectors have failed to do and we are doing it every day. Sport works in uniting communities in Northern Ireland."

Asked if Stormont could invest even more in sport, there's a short pause before the reply.

"You can always do more with more resources but it is not just about money. You can be very clear on what your goals are and be ruthless in achieving those. It is about harnessing goodwill, passion and enthusiasm for sport and right across the political parties in Northern Ireland I have seen a passion for sport which I'm sure will continue."

The government has splashed the cash, of course, re-developing Ravenhill, now the Kingspan Stadium, Windsor Park and Casement Park.

"One is finished and is a perfect example of what can be achieved in a small region like Northern Ireland. I love going to Ravenhill and we are all so proud of the stadium," says McKeown, eyes lighting up and her smile filling the room.

"The first sod at Windsor Park was cut a few weeks ago and it is moving well. There is a real opportunity there, not just inside the stadium but also around the stadium, to make that a strong success. We have had some challenges in relation to Casement Park but we are continuing to give advice and work with the design team and work with the Department to keep that progress steady.

"I think the current design has run into a problem in relation to emergency exiting. We are working very closely with our DCAL colleagues to get the best design that will provide a really good experience and keep people safe at the same time."

McKeown confirmed that Sport NI are also in regular contact with local boxing authorities to ensure sectarian problems, as highlighted in an independent report last year, are stamped out.

And she insists Sport NI are keen to connect with Irish League clubs, having helped set the wheels in motion to aid the future prospects of the Northern Ireland football team.

"The Irish FA are taking coaching investment seriously and we are funding that. We are working closely with the IFA and the Northern Ireland youth team. The strategy is right and now we need to invest the time, energy and the quality of coaching that is needed," says Antoinette, who enjoys hillwalking 'to clear my head'.

"We have had a lot of young footballers going across the water and not staying there. I would commend the IFA and the work Jim Magilton is doing with the under age Academy teams. They are not just looking after their footballing skills but are taking a 360 degrees view of what a young person actually needs to stay in the game. That's what we want because it will benefit Northern Ireland in the long run."

With a nod to what is dominating many lives at the moment, she adds: "It really would be great to see Northern Ireland at a World Cup again."

Respect Rory's decision on his Olympic team choice poser

As she settles into her new role as Chief Executive of Sport Northern Ireland, Steven Beacom puts Antoinette McKeown under the spotlight.

Steven Beacom: What targets are Sport NI setting for the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games team in Glasgow?

Antoinette McKeown: We want to see our athletes doing the absolute best that they can. We aren't saying we are demanding gold from this athlete or silver from that athlete, but the fact the Games are in Glasgow should make a huge difference to our team, as there will be no acclimatisation required and we will have more support, so we are hoping to do well.

SB: What's your take on the dilemma facing Rory McIlroy ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio and whether he chooses to represent Team GB or Team Ireland?

AM: We should respect whatever decision Rory makes. The important point for all of us is that we know he is from Northern Ireland and how proud he is to be from Northern Ireland and how proud we are of him. It really doesn't matter what flag or identity he decides to play under. We know he is ours and he should be respected and supported for that.

SB: Before every Northern Ireland game God Save the Queen is played. Some believe the anthem should be changed. What's your opinion?

AM: That is a matter for the sport. If it is wanted by the sport and the fans it should be respected. If sport in Northern Ireland across the spectrum wants its own anthem it is a great idea but I wouldn't be for replacing something with something new if there wasn't the support for it.

SB: Northern Ireland will play an international at Windsor Park on a Sunday for the first time next year. Should the match go ahead on that day?

AM: Sport is for all and for all to enjoy. For those who hold very strong Christian beliefs I think they have a choice to not attend matches on a Sunday and should be respected for that. For those who have a different tradition or different view then there is an opportunity to go and watch the game. We have to respect all the traditions.

SB: Will you be there?

AM: I will go to the match.

SB: Are you concerned that with the departure of David Humphreys from Ulster Rugby, along with several high profile players, that we could be entering a tough period for the team which has become so popular in Northern Ireland?

AM: First of all David Humphreys should be proud of what he achieved at Ulster. On a personal level we are delighted he has this new opportunity at Gloucester and wish him well, but David will be sorely missed by Ulster Rugby. We had discussions recently at both player and administrative management level and have been assured that some of the young players coming behind are every bit as good as those who have left. Of course household names like Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace are no longer with Ulster, but it will only be a matter of time before new players become household names.

SB: Some Ulster Rugby fans were unhappy with Ravenhill being re-named the Kingspan Stadium. What's your thoughts on that?

AM: It's a sponsorship opportunity for Ulster Rugby. They have to responsible for sustaining what they have at the new stadium. Ravenhill will always be Ravenhill to the fans who go there.

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