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Legal bid from NI gymnasts to compete in Commonwealth Games could be costly and difficult, sports lawyer warns

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Co Down's Rhys McClenaghan - a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist - is one of three NI athletes facing a ban from this year's Games in Birmingham.

Co Down's Rhys McClenaghan - a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist - is one of three NI athletes facing a ban from this year's Games in Birmingham.

Co Down's Rhys McClenaghan - a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist - is one of three NI athletes facing a ban from this year's Games in Birmingham.

A sports lawyer has warned that a legal challenge against a ban on three Northern Ireland athletes’ participation in the Commonwealth Games could prove difficult.

Last week, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) announced that Eamon Montgomery, Ewan McAteer and former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Rhys McClenaghan are banned from competing in this summer’s event because they had previously competed for Ireland at events where Northern Ireland does not participate.

Belfast-born Jonny Madill is a partner at Sheridans law firm in London, where he specialises in dispute resolution matters within the sports sector.

He said the ruling is “highly unusual and potentially unprecedented – not least because of the completely unique context which athletes from Northern Ireland find themselves in, as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the status of athletes in Northern Ireland”.

However, he believes that any appeal taken to overrule the FIG decision would be “costly, time-consuming and not straight-forward”.

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Mr Madill added that continuing to apply pressure on the FIG – as well as the Commonwealth Games Federation – through “constructive dialogue” could be more beneficial, given that the Games in Birmingham are less than two months away – starting on July 28.

He also noted that the FIG’s position is “completely at odds with the approach taken by other sporting bodies”, as it is the only organisation to take such a stance against athletes from NI who have previously represented Ireland.

“At the centre of all of this is a group of athletes who are being prevented from competing on the world stage because of a federation’s decision which simply fails to understand or respect the rights offered to those athletes by an international agreement, the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

"It’s also worth noting that the Court of Arbitration for Sport made a ruling a number of years ago in the football context, making clear that players from NI with an Irish passport could represent the Republic of Ireland – again in light of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Mr McClenaghan was Northern Ireland's only gold medal winner at the 2018 Gold Coast Games and told how it was “one of the best days” of his life.

The Newtownards man said he is “devastated” at the prospect of missing out on repeating this achievement. 

He has been told he may have to renounce the Irish nationality on his gymnastics licence if he wants to defend his Commonwealth title. The FIG have said that its main rationale for its decision is complying with its own statutes and rules.

Mr Madill claims “this is a weak position”. "These rules fail to acknowledge the complex nuances of dual nationality in Northern Ireland,” he added. 

"There are a raft of potential legal issues and concerns around the lawfulness and reasonableness of a federation’s rules which do not respect the significance of international treaties.”

Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland announced it is planning an appeal after what it described an “incomprehensible” decision to exclude the three gymnasts.

On Monday – despite the lack of a functioning Assembly – MLAs from every party joined to sign a letter to the FIG backing McClenaghan, Montgomery and McAteer.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has further written separately to the FIG president, Morinari Watanabe, calling for him to “urgently reconsider this decision”.

The FIG has been approached for comment by the Belfast Telegraph.


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