Cream rises to top on fast track
Bathed in early morning sunshine, the Mary Peters Track was a picture as the athletics began at this year's World Police and Fire Games.
In the Olympics there is always a surge of excitement when the track and field events get under way and in south Belfast yesterday you could reach out and touch the feelgood atmosphere.
Everyone you met from competitors to officials, volunteers to spectators, all had a smile on their face.
And no one was smiling more than Dame Mary herself, sat in the new stand beside Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, a huge supporter of these Games.
The Mary Peters stadium, built to commemorate our Golden Girl's Olympic success in 1972, has undergone a much-needed facelift recently.
In many ways the World Police and Fire Games was the catalyst for spending £3 million on the refurbishment of one of Northern Ireland's most famous sporting venues.
With so many taking part in the athletics in the Games, a high-class facility was needed for the competitors and that is exactly what they have got at the Mary Peters arena with its new eight-lane track, which has a 'Mondo' surface finished to the same standard as the Olympic Stadium in London.
Sprinters tell you it is a joy to run on, giving them the opportunity to post fast times.
Brent Gray (pictured) from the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department doesn't need much help on that score.
His personal best is 10.24 seconds for the 100 metres.
The 'A' standard qualifying time for next week's World Championships is 10.15 and the 'B' standard is 10.21, so Brent, at his peak, is extremely close to what is required to meet the likes of the legendary Usain Bolt in top class competition.
And some say the quality of sportsmen and women on show at these Games is not up to much.
They should have been watching the chilled-out Gray, slowing up yesterday as he cruised to victory in his 100m heat in a time of 10.69, appreciated by a healthy crowd.
No wonder he is favourite to clinch gold today in the final of his 18-30 age category.
The understated and modest 26-year-old is his own coach and says: “It's fantastic to be here. I'm hoping I can do really well.”
My hunch is he'll do just fine.
One of the interesting aspects of these Games is the wide range of ages involved. Today, for instance, there will be an over 75s 100m final.
Yesterday the oldest sprinter in town was Charles Williams from the Los Angeles Police Department, aged 58 and capable of running 12.2 seconds in the blue ribbon event.
Wearing a USA national vest, this fascinating character revealed he only started racing the 100m when he was 40 because he was tired of distance races events!
Charles finished second in the 100m, but won the 200m and 400m in his category in the previous World Police and Fire Games in New York two years ago. He'd relish similar success this time, but savouring the experience and Ulster hospitality is more important.
He said: “I'm loving Northern Ireland. I've found everyone here so friendly. If I look like I'm lost people will come up to me and help and when I've been on a bus people have been kind enough to point out where my stop is. We've been made to feel very welcome.
“I have to say it’s one of the best organised events I've participated in in 20 years. It feels like it is set up as a world-class Olympics with the electric starting blocks and all the helpers to carry the baskets with your kit in them.”
Charles added that it was a privilege to be racing on a track named after a sporting great which has played host to so many famous names in the past.
“It's remarkable to be here competing at this track because Mary Peters was of course an Olympian champion and years ago one of my heroes Ed Moses ran here, so it's wonderful to be running in the same place.”
The other competitors would say the same.
The athletics continues until Tuesday.
Belfast Telegraph Digital