Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Our Olympic dreams have been shattered

Cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel is an inspiration to other competitors in Northern Ireland but the promise of a £50million investment by Stormont to boost our Olympic legacy has fallen by the wayside.

So now we know, the Olympic legacy for Northern Ireland will be broken promises and broken dreams.

The sporting fraternity has been left reeling by the government's decision to axe five proposed elite facilities for athletics, basketball, sailing, cycling and tennis plans for which were all at an advanced stage.

Five years ago Lord Sebastian Coe arrived with then Sports Minister David Hanson and many local sporting dignitaries at Hillsborough Castle to announce how Northern Ireland was to benefit from a series of new facilities and so ensued a long drawn out bureaucratic process which has come to nothing for many disillusioned sporting officials and athletes.

Indeed, you suspect that the only reason the Olympic-sized swimming pool is still going ahead in Bangor is because North Down Council managed to get through their wall of red tape and receive the green light last year.

Though, instead of being built by 2010, the £35m facility — £15m from government funding — is more likely to be finished by 2012.

Cycling Ulster chairman Tommy Lamb summed up the mood of all those involved in the development of the plans for all five facilities when he described the decision as a “very dark day for Cycling Ulster and sport in general.”

Wendy Houvenaghel has made her name on the world arena but has had to go far from her Upperlands roots to become a major player on the global scene and those who look after the sport in this part of the world are annoyed that the funding blow will mean others having talent will have to travel.

Cycling Ireland and Cycling Ulster had worked on their proposed Velodrome for five years and were convinced they had got to the stage were it would merely be a rubber stamping exercise for the Downpatrick centre to go ahead.

Instead, all their time and effort has been wasted.

Lamb added: “We are devastated by this news. We know that we have the potential here to produce Olympic champions, the success at the Commonwealth Games of riders like Martin Irvine and Sean Downey showed that.

“Here were guys doing well on the track who do not have an indoor facility. We have invested heavily in track cycling on the back of the promise, a politician’s promise, that we would get the velodrome. We were 90 per cent sure that it was coming our way.

“That’s why we have been so focused on the velodrome and the south have been holding back for five years because this was to be a national centre of excellence.

“We were told by David Hanson, the minister when this legacy promise was made, that sport here would enjoy all the spin-offs from London 2012 and we have spent thousands putting a business plan together and the Councils involved have all spent a small fortune on the bidding process, Belfast, Newry and Downpatrick.

“When Downpatrick got through to the next stage we were very positive, we brought in a track specialist from Europe to help put the business plan together and now it’s all been a waste of time.

“We had been told they would be ready before the Games started but then recently the plan was for it to be built in 2013. It leaves cycling in a very tough spot but we will keep working towards getting a national indoor facility. “This decision is a bit like finding a new George Best and then telling him you can’t play in football boots. It’s very unfair to expect our young cyclists to compete against those who have indoor facilities.”

Those sentiments were echoed by his Athletics counterpart, John Allen, who believes the decision to axe the indoor arena at Antrim will have long term detrimental effects for a sport whose facilities are third world. “The indoor arena was to cost in the region of seven to eight million pounds, we've been working on this for years and to get to the point where you are almost ready to go and then get a blunt letter saying that’s it boys, good night is very hard to take,” said Athletics NI chairman Allen.

“A monumental amount of time and money has been wasted on this. When London won the right to stage the Olympics that’s when we were told that Northern Ireland would have a legacy from it, so we got to work and Antrim Council came up with the proposal of the indoor facility beside the outdoor facility. We were told that teams would be coming here to train but now that has gone and it is a huge blow to the sport here and leaves way, way behind the rest of Europe.

“Our facilities are not up to scratch and we have the 2014 Commonwealth Games coming up and then another Olympics and I’m sure people will be asking why have we not got more Olympians and one of the reasons will be because we don’t have the facilities. But while this money has been taken away there remains £110m still in place for football, GAA and rugby. We have been granted a meeting next week with Sports Council and then we’ll take the matter from there, we don’t want to lie down on this.”

How ironic that Allen's comments come just as Olympic gold medallist Jonathan Edwards arrives in Belfast today to brief the Olympics committee at Stormont on London 2012.

With the news of these devastating cuts, it surely begs the question why on earth does Northern Ireland have an Olympics quango? And how much money could be saved if it was axed?

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