World Fire and Police Games are an Olympic task for Johnny Davis
Steven Beacom speaks to the man tasked with delivering the 2013 World Fire and Police Games to Northern Ireland
Published 25/07/2013 | 01:30
Johnny Davis has competed in the Olympics, worked with U2 and Coldplay, set up his own company and successfully organised major sporting events.
The 52-year-old, originally from Dungannon, admits though that he is facing his biggest challenge ever as Head of Sports Delivery for the 2013 World Police and Fire Games (WPFG) being staged in Northern Ireland.
With over 6,500 competitors from 60 countries set to take part in 56 different sports across 41 venues all over the province, the Games are the third largest multi-sports event in the world.
Officially the Games run from August 1-10 though they actually begin on Thursday at the Odyssey Arena with the ice hockey when the NI Tridents, an emergency services team, will represent the host nation.
While much has been talked about if and by how much the World Police and Fire Games will boost the economy and tourism in Northern Ireland, it is the job of Davis and his team to ensure that all the sports run smoothly.
Under the banner of his sports management company Pioneer, he has organised the likes of the European Fencing Championships in Sheffield, the British Transplant Games and the World Boccia Cup.
"Take one of those events and multiply it by 50 because of the infrastructure, security and organisation involved in this one. This is huge," says two-time Olympic fencer Davis, who has been in his role since September last year.
"This event is about people enjoying themselves, athletes competing and making long lasting friendships and is another opportunity for Northern Ireland to show the world that we are great hosts and that we can put on a huge undertaking like this.
"The venues are fantastic around the country and as for the athletes there will be quality performers especially in track and field and swimming and then there will be competitors like the 75-year-old in the pool, full of personal endeavour, who is determined to finish his particular race. It really is a unique event which can do a great deal for Northern Ireland.
"We live in a wonderful place and those coming over to compete and support will see that. Yes, we have distractions which as locals we live through but I do believe the Games will help the country and help our tourism.
"We are in charge of the sporting side of things and what would make it a success for me is that every athlete has a professional, well structured and well organised event to take part in and they go away saying they enjoyed it. If we can get it right, the sports stars will enjoy it and that feelgood factor will transmit itself around the country."
Johnny, married with two children Christy and Emma, adds: "It's the biggest challenge of my life. If we can deliver on this, hopefully various sports and the sporting bodies involved in these Games will have the confidence to go to Sport NI and say let's try to get other big events here.
"It is important to point out that this is not the Olympics for Northern Ireland, but of course we want to capture a positive experience."
Davis, who when in the music business became friendly with Bono in his work with the likes of U2 and Coldplay, is keen that Northern Ireland savours these Games.
All events are free for the general public with 3,500 volunteers assisting spectators, competitors and officials.
While hoping for that feelgood factor, Johnny is well aware that there has been criticism and numerous questions asked relating to the Games, such as the fact that competitor numbers are down on what was hoped and expected.
Fears have also been expressed about security issues with members of the PSNI competing and the image projected to visitors about Northern Ireland with continued public unrest on the streets.
"In terms of security and public unrest the reality is that those issues are being addressed," says Davis, a fascinating and formidable character.
"There may have been flak about numbers but believe me we have a lot of athletes coming to Northern Ireland from over 60 countries. We should not be disappointed about that!
"I think at times we can be too negative here and of course where there is public money there will always be scrutiny, but from my team and my side I believe we will deliver a brilliant Games for the athletes. This is an event which by the time it is finished will hopefully be celebrated by all."
Competition is in the man's blood
Competing in one Olympics is special, but Ulsterman Johnny Davis took part in two and believes it should have been three.
An accomplished fencer, Davis was in the Great Britain and Northern Ireland squad for Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992.
He was trackside for that infamous 100m won by drug cheat Ben Johnson in South Korea, but overall his second Olympic experience turned out to be far more enjoyable.
Johnny was a keen footballer, hockey player and runner as a child but when he took up fencing in second form at RBAI it proved to be a life changing moment. He says: "I won the first fencing competition I entered and liked the buzz. In fencing you are in a squad which I relish but when you are competing it is you against the guy at the other end and I loved that responsibility and thrived on the pressure.
"I was in the top three or four all the way through in the British under 14 to under 18 teams and then moved to college in England with the objective of making it to the Olympics."
That dream should have come true in Los Angeles 1984, where his future wife Katie Arup competed as a fencer, but management opted for experience over the Northern Ireland rookie, who had actually qualified for the team.
"Annoyed' by that, Davis was not deterred and continued to make great strides in his sport, though without the lottery funding athletes receive now worked in the music industry in PR and marketing with the likes of U2 to earn money. The day job may have been exciting, but it was also exhausting.
"My schedule was train from 7am to 9am, work from 9.30am to 6pm, train from 6.30pm to 9.30pm and then work from 10pm to 2am. At the weekend I'd fly around the world to compete and my body just gave up as I was doing too much," recalled Johnny.
"I made the call to go full-time into fencing and at least I hung up my shoes knowing I had given it a real shot."
Davis fenced in five World Championships and won medals in the Commonwealth Championships, but the ultimate was the Olympics. "In the first Olympics in Seoul we got the preparation wrong as a team because we were there for three weeks before we competed. It was disappointing because my expectations were so high," he says.
"The Barcelona Olympics were much better. As an individual I finished 19th. It was a knockout system and I lost to the guy who lost in the final. In the team event we were ninth and the best amateur team in the competition by a long way. I was as fit as I could be, prepared properly and it was everything that I hoped it would be and more."
There was also a top 20 finish in the World Championships to be proud of and an incredible run of domestic success in 1993. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were on the agenda but moving back home to Northern Ireland to start his own sports management business proved too time consuming.
Johnny has represented Northern Ireland and Ireland in athletics, duathlons and triathlons and is now a hit as a fencing coach as well as heading up the sports delivery of the World Police and Fire Games. What's that saying? If you want something done ask a busy man!
Johnny Davis Factfile
Role: Head of Sports Delivery for 2013 World Police and Fire Games
Date of Birth: 4/11/60
Sporting background: Member of GB Olympic Fencing team – Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992
Member of GB Fencing Team – World Championships Barcelona 1985, Lausanne 1987, Denver 1989, Lyon 1990, Budapest – 1991
Member of NI Fencing Team – Commonwealth Championships 1978, 1982, 1986, 1994, 1998, winner of one silver and two bronze medals.
Member of NI Age Group Cross Country Team 2007 – Home Internationals – Scotland.
Member of Irish team – European Age Group Duathlon Championships – Edinburgh 2007
Member of Irish team – European Age Group Triathlon Championships, Lisbon 2008.
Qualified Fencing Coach – International Grade 5
Sporting heroes: George Best, Muhammad Ali and Dame Mary Peters.
He says: "I saw George score that 'goal' at a packed Windsor Park when he took the ball off Gordon Banks and also saw him sent off against Scotland. He always brought such excitement. I love Ali because he challenged the system and changed people's thinking and Mary because she is an inspiration. At the age of 12 I was in hospital after falling off a horse in 1972 and while there I watched her win her gold medal on a black and white television. After that I wanted to compete in the Olympics."
Best sporting moment: The Italians are the best in the world in my weapon, foil. In the 1991 World Championships we fenced Italy and I won all four fights and that consisted of beating two Olympic champions, a world champion and a bronze medallist. I was at the peak of my form and it felt great."