Belfast Telegraph

Sport chief McKeown will make Northern Ireland's fabulous fighters the ones to copy

By Steven Beacom

Sport Northern Ireland Chief Executive Antoinette McKeown believes other sports in the country can learn from the success of our boxers at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan were Northern Ireland's only gold medal winners with seven other fighters, including new kid on the block Michaela Walsh, also making the podium in Glasgow where the boxing squad won NINE out of the nation's 12 medals overall.

McKeown, who was in Scotland for the Games, is determined to ensure that sport in Northern Ireland becomes successful across the board.

"At Sport Northern Ireland we are serious about creating an environment where sporting success becomes routine and that's what the boxers are giving us. That's what we have to learn from," said McKeown in a straight-talking interview with the Belfast Telegraph.

Explaining that a detailed review of each sport at the Commonwealth Games will be undertaken by Sport NI, McKeown spoke of her admiration at what the boxing squad had achieved in recent years, with the class of 2014 almost doubling their medal tally from Delhi 2010 which at the time was a record-breaking five.

"One of the things we are all clear about is that the boxing medals weren't won by chance. We did a very honest review post-Melbourne in 2006 (in that Commonwealth Games Team NI won just two medals) and have been on a journey since then on how to develop a really mature High Performance system in sport in Northern Ireland, and boxing has bought completely into that," said McKeown.

"We have really good athletes who provide a competitive environment and they feed off each other, we have really good coaches like John Conlan, the boxers have the use of the facilities in Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) and they listen to advice from their physiologists, their strength and conditioning experts, their nutritionists, their sports psychologists and they use all those services and actually recognise them.

"On top of that they have an unflinching commitment to self, their team and their coaches and they really believe in themselves.

"Michaela Walsh, who won silver in Glasgow, epitomises that. The Commonwealth Games was her first international competition and she competed wanting nothing less than gold and she believed she would get it.

"I think all sport in Northern Ireland has so much to learn from boxers here and their coaches and our Director of Performance is looking to see how we can facilitate that learning because it is absolutely vital."

What will also be crucial to sport here progressing in the future are the results from a review of the Games in Glasgow.

There were a few personal bests in the high profile sports of athletics and swimming, but nobody came close to winning a medal. It is clear and only right that those at the top are looking for better by the time the next Commonwealth event finishes in the Gold Coast in Australia in 2018.

"We are now going to take a very serious and detailed review, as is our standard practice, of our performance in each of the sports. We will sit down with the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council and all of the governing bodies of all the sports for the review. We will look at the factors which contributed to success and factors which didn't lead to any success," said the Sport NI Chief.

"That is a piece of work we are starting now and we are very clear that we will be setting targets for the Gold Coast.

"We are starting a new corporate plan from 2015 to 2019 and essentially we are on route to a new four-year strategy and that will inform where we put our finances going forward.

"More gold at the Gold Coast and significant increases in participation of sport will be the aims of Sport Northern Ireland. We need a stronger talent pool coming through because Paddy Barnes, for example, isn't going to box forever."

While the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council refused to make public their medal targets for Glasgow, it is pleasing to hear McKeown and Sport NI are happy to be more transparent about their hopes and aims for the future.

"We had set targets post the Delhi Games in 2010 and we will be setting targets as part of this review going forward and we are happy to come back and tell you what they are and why they are what they are," said the former chief executive of the NI Consumer Council, who has made a positive impact since being appointed to her sporting role 14 months ago.

McKeown added: "There was phenomenal success for our boxers, which they deserved for all the hard work they put in. Now we have to measure everything across the board and do some serious thinking as to where we put our resources to win more medals in the Gold Coast in 2018."

Money obviously forms a large part of those resources. Shortly Sport NI will invest £17.5 million in facilities around the country.

They will also continue to fund performance directors and good governance across sporting governing bodies, develop coaches and provide finance for their Athlete Investment Programme.

A key for Antoinette is seeing more people participating in sport across Northern Ireland knowing that can lead to the identification of new talent, the development of that talent and a greater pool of talent which can only be beneficial to sport in our country.

Belfast Telegraph

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