Northern Ireland’s most talented athletes were last night hit by a massive blow to their London 2012 medal hopes.
Sport NI have been left reeling by news that their budget is to be cut by £2.5 million — which in turn will hit local athletes at one of the most crucial times in the history of sport in this country.
The Commonwealth Games take place in Delhi later this year, a vital stepping stone for athletes with dreams of Olympic glory at London 2012, one of the most significant sporting events ever to be staged in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland secured two medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and hopes were high that the tally at the London 2012 Games would be even greater.
Cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel, from Upperlands, Co Londonderry, won silver in the individual pursuit, and north Belfast boxer Paddy Barnes took bronze in the light flyweight division.
Northern Ireland has not won individual Olympic gold since Dame Mary Peters triumphed in the pentathlon in Munich in 1972.
Ironically, London 2012 Organising Committee chairman Lord Sebastian Coe — 1500m gold medallist at the 1980 and 1984 Games — paid an official visit to the province this week during which he praised the high levels of support in Northern Ireland for the 2012 Olympics.
Lord Coe also underlined the importance of medal success at the Games for boosting participation at grassroots level.
“Look at the contribution Northern Ireland has made to Olympic history,” said Lord Coe.
“I have no doubt that the reason we get such high levels of support in a relatively small community such as Northern Ireland is that Olympic moments really matter.
“Mary Peters achieving what she did in 1972 really mattered. It’s deep seated in the collective memory. The people of Northern Ireland understand that,” said Lord Coe.
“People know what an incredible inspiration creating Olympic gold medals in your own backyard can be to the next generation coming through.
“I believe — and know — that the greatest driver of participation is the well stocked shop window. That’s the Mary Peters, the Barry McGuigans. These athletes drive people into sport.
“Participation and elite are both the same side of the apple. The greatest driver of participation are role models,” added Lord Coe.
Sport NI are determined to fight the proposed cuts.
Sport NI officials yesterday attended an urgent session of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee at Stormont to call for a re-think on the proposed budget cuts in 2010-11, amounting to a possible £2.5m.
“A cut in the revenue budget may mean that up to 20 of Northern Ireland’s most talented athletes will not receive funding to support their preparations for Delhi 2010 and London 2012,” a Sport NI spokesman revealed last night, adding that the deadline for the public consultation period is Friday, February 26.
“It is clear that, properly resourced and supported, Northern Ireland athletes have the talent to succeed.
“There are two reasons why we need ongoing investment in sport and these add up to ensure a better quality of life for people in Northern Ireland.
“Firstly the personal benefits to the individual such as increased networks of friends, fun, enjoyment and increased confidence.
“Secondly, the societal benefits, a proven tool for regeneration, the contribution of sport to GDP — £446m per annum and 13,700 jobs — and the health benefits derived from participating in sport and physical activity.”
Sport NI claim that 120 local sports clubs, some sports governing bodies and 24 existing community sports posts could be affected by the proposed cuts.
But it is the direct effect of the proposed cuts on Northern Ireland’s medal hopes with the London 2012 extravaganza looming that will grab most attention.
It will be 40 years since Dame Mary’s triumph by the time London 2012 comes around. It had been hoped that the long wait for gold might be coming to an end.
Last night those hopes suffered a big blow.