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Dominic Walsh: Invest in our athletes

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Boxer Paddy Barnes

Boxer Paddy Barnes

Swimmer Melanie Nocher.

Swimmer Melanie Nocher.

Rower Alan Campbell.

Rower Alan Campbell.

Cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel

Cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel

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Boxer Paddy Barnes

The spectacular Beijing Olympics has further inspired Dominic Walsh, chair of Sport Northern Ireland, as he strives for more Government funding for local athletes and a better sporting infrastructure, including a stadium

Beijing was my first Olympic experience and what a fantastic experience it was. Meeting athletes, watching gold medallists in action and seeing world records being set has further inspired me to ensure that sport in Northern Ireland plays a lead role in 2012. The Beijing Olympics were without a doubt a spectacular experience; the magnificent Bird’s Nest stadium, the mass of friendly volunteers, and of course the phenomenal opening and closing ceremonies. What a great job Beijing and China has done and I look forward to the UK and London delivering an even better Games, one which will make us all proud.

As chair of Sport Northern Ireland I have been invigorated by the world class performance of Team GB and indeed Team Ireland. Their outstanding performances have created a real sense of excitement and inspiration. Proper support structures, substantial investment, self-belief, professionalism and excellence have undoubtedly led them to this success.

It is magnificent to have two Northern Ireland Olympic Medallists come home from Beijing and I look forward to welcoming home many more medallists from the forthcoming Beijing Paralympic Games.

Congratulations to Olympic silver medallist Wendy Houvenaghel and bronze medallist Paddy Barnes. They are both role models of what can be achieved through setting an Olympic goal, mapping the journey to success and with hard work, determination and commitment they enjoyed success.

I would also like to congratulate all the other Northern Ireland athletes on their participation in the Beijing Olympics; they too are excellent role models. Rowers Alan Campbell and Richard Chambers who came 5th in their respective finals, rower Richard Archibald whose crew finished 4th in the semi-finals, swimmers Andrew Bree and Melanie Nocher who both set new Irish records, triathlete Emma Davis who finished 37th improving her world ranking, sailor Stephen Milne who finished 13th and counted four top 10 race finishes in his first Olympic Regatta and Philip Deignan who competed in the men’s road race. For all these athletes it has been a long hard journey, which has meant sacrifice and required enormous commitment and dedication. They will all have enjoyed the experience of Beijing and will hopefully use this experience to strive for gold in London 2012.

So moving forward, where does sport in Northern Ireland go from here?

The Northern Ireland public value international sporting success with 89% of people valuing international sporting success with the Olympic and Paralympic Games ranking highest in terms of importance for our athletes to achieve success at.

However sporting excellence costs money and if we want to reap the rewards of success then more Government investment is required. At the heart of Team GB’s success was its support structure. In Northern Ireland we are working towards a world class performance system including world class coaches, sport scientists and sports medics. If this world class system is to be achieved we need world class funding, that among other things made Team GB great.

The recently completed £15m Sports Institute Northern Ireland at the University of Ulster will increasingly play a vital role in terms of a world class performance system but we need to take it further than this. We have the talent in Northern Ireland but we need the delivery structures focused on athletes for our athletes to succeed. Governing bodies need to modernise focusing on athletes, identifying the talent, developing the talent, and giving our athletes the right support services, coaches and competition opportunities — only then will our athletes succeed.

It is our aspiration to have a high performance system in place but to do this we require adequate levels of Government funding to secure world class services, coaches and also facilities. Remember that the required average investment for a single gold medal is around £2.5m.

Northern Ireland will soon have world class sporting facilities for both training and competition. The Sport Northern Ireland Elite Facilities Programme and other Exchequer capital funding will create an opportunity to address this facility need but we now need to move at a pace, cut through the red tape and really move forwards.

Northern Ireland will never be able to attract significant sporting events without a suitable sporting infrastructure. This infrastructure needs to include a stadium and it is imperative that a decision is made on a stadium as soon as possible. If a decision was made in the next month we could have a stadium in time for 2012 allowing Northern Ireland to be an integral part of 2012 in terms of hosting some of the 2012 Olympic Football matches. How amazing would it be to bring the Olympics right to our doorstep!

After the Beijing Paralympics the countdown will begin to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In Northern Ireland we should be taking advantage of the tidal wave of good will around sport which has resulted from the Beijing Olympics to invest in all the health and social benefits associated with participation and sport; this is a once in a lifetime opportunity which shouldn’t be lost! The success of the Olympics has the potential to raise the profile of sport and to attract more people to participate. Getting our young people started in sport is an essential part of feeding the athlete pipeline that can eventually maintain and exceed current levels of success.

It is all our responsibilities to develop the indigenous talent of Northern Ireland but without proper investment this won’t be possible. We've got to put the network in place in terms of funding for facilities and the best coaching so that people who are inspired by sport stay in sport.

Belfast Telegraph


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