Ed Curran: Why the 2012 London Olympics offer us a real sporting chance
Those of us who were privileged to be at the Beijing Olympics can be certain we will never see such an extraordinary extravaganza again. No country, not even the United States, not even a Roman Abramovich Russia, could afford what the Chinese did.
But now it's London's turn. The hand-over of the Olympic baton to the British at the closing ceremony yesterday signals a huge challenge not simply for London but for everyone in these islands.
The impact of the Olympics more than 5,000 miles away was immense. But, in four years time, this, the greatest show on Earth will be 500 miles away, literally on our doorstep. It will be wall-to-wall television everywhere for billions of people. As I witnessed in China, it will attract the representatives of 200 countries, 17,000 athletes and officials, probably in the region of half a million spectators.
I suspect there are broadly two attitudes here to the London Olympics. The first, that ‘Twenty-Twelve’ is about Great Britain, London, the south-east of England blowing £9 billion of mainly taxpayers' money on three weeks of sport.
Indeed, concerns were raised when it was reported earlier this year that lottery money intended for regions, such as Northern Ireland, will be redirected to pay for the Olympics.
The second attitude, which I subscribe to and which, I believe, everyone here should also, is that 2012 is a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland — and all of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the northern regions of England. We can bury our collective heads in the sands of time and simply ignore the Olympics. Or we can get stuck in immediately and make as much capital as we can from the global interest that the London Games will generate.
Why should we do that? I would suggest for a whole heap of reasons. I hope that the new Sports Minister, Gregory Campbell, every manjack at Sport Northern Ireland, and in Tourism Ireland, is up for this challenge and that even as we leave the unbelievable experience of Beijing behind, they are thinking four years ahead.
I believe the political, sporting and tourist people in the Republic should be thinking just the same — and I'm sure they are — for the Olympic opportunities for Dublin and the south are just as great. Whether you support or are offended by the wrap-the-Union Jack-around-the-shoulders jingoism of the British medal winners in Beijing, should not cloud our approach to 2012.
Many of the 204 countries in China spent small fortunes sending their athletes to Asia to acclimatise in advance of the Beijing Games. Next time round, it will not be the heat and humidity of the Orient which makes the difference between victory and defeat, but the ability to cope with the great British/Irish summer.
I did not see much sun peaking through the haze of China over the past fortnight but it was not quite as monsoon-like as Belfast or Britain. The 2012 athletes will want to experience our unpredictable Olympic climate well in advance.
On an unforgettable night in the Bird's Nest stadium, I witnessed Usain Bolt's 100 metres world record, undoubtedly helped by a wind speed recorded as zero. That seems a most unlikely scenario after the rain-soaked, wind-swept summer of 2008 across the British Isles and I look forward to seeing, Mr Bolt and many other great athletes trying out their talents against the elements of this part of the world.
We should expect to play host to hundreds, if not thousands of athletes in advance of the London Games and where better to soak up the rain, if not the summer sun, than Ireland, north and south? Where better to find the right conditions for sailing, yachting, rowing, canoeing, and a whole range of outdoor sports?
Where better to find a country steeped in the tradition of equestrian sports? And that being the case, surely the Balmoral Show and Dublin Horse Show in 2011 can attract many top show-jumpers in preparation for the Olympics?
While in Beijing, I was heartened to see officials from Stormont and Sport Northern Ireland promoting the facilities we have here. Let me list some of the sports which we might attract in particular ... archery, athletics, aquatics, badminton, basketball, boxing, road cycling, hockey, soccer, boxing, equestrian sports, fencing, gymnastics, judo, sailing, table tennis, volleyball, wrestling. Think of the stimulous to this country if we could play host to such sports and to the nations which play them. We must not dither as we have over building a new stadium. Regrettably, unless a decision is taken swiftly, any stadium is unlikely to be ready in time to welcome the next soccer-playing Olympians.
One night in Beijing, I saw the old Workers Stadium lit up and packed with the fans of China and Brazil. What an opportunity, I thought, for Northern Ireland to welcome teams such as these to our new stadium in advance of the next Games?
Perhaps, we can. What we must not do is listen to the cynics. They fail to understand just how significant the Olympic Games are in today's world. They should look at the viewing figures and they should also understand that the Beijing Games have fired the imagination of a new generation as never before. The interest in London 2012, on our very doorstep, will be immense.
This is Northern Ireland's chance even if we are still waiting, 36 years on, for that elusive gold medal to add to Dame Mary Peters' achievement. I hope we can win gold in 2012 and that somewhere out there, there is a young star in the making.
Whether that is the case or not, this province can win gold for itself by recognising that the Olympic Games 48 months from now, can bring the world to us and promote us to the world. So on your marks. Get set and let's go.