Games reveal city on winning streak
With events such as wrist wrestling and dodgeball, they were never going to rival the Olympics. But the World Police and Fire Games have turned Belfast into the capital of craic. Ivan Little reports
Only a hermit could have failed to notice how, all of a sudden, Belfast, with its normally sullen sectarian summer, has turned into the capital of craic, where the buzzword this year is fun – not fear.
Thousands of visitors from here, there and everywhere have transformed the place into party central, with their mix of serious and silly-sounding sports in the World Police and Fire Games.
For more than a week now, it's been impossible to walk down any street, or go into any bar, in Belfast without getting caught up in the heady, happy atmosphere generated by the welcome invasion of athletes and their not-so-athletic army of supporters and relatives who really have made WPFG 2013 the games for a laugh.
It's no wonder that insiders are predicting that, come the end of the games, a number of bars in the city will be posting record returns for August and even Guinness, whose sales have hit a black period in Ireland, are reporting a stout surge in demand for their beverages in Belfast.
Sadly, the reality is that if some athletes had moved as quickly in their sporting arenas as they did in their dash to the bars inside and outside their village in Custom House Square, they would have won hands-down.
Yet, in spite of all the elbow-bending, the off-duty firefighters and police officers have posed few problems on their nights out for their on-duty PSNI colleagues.
Hotels in Belfast, too, are bursting at the seams, charging premium rates. But it's hard to blame them in a boom time, so different from the bomb time of years ago.
However, it's not just WPFG competitors who have helped set a gold-medal standard for tourism this year in Belfast, which is also on the crest of a wave from 60 cruise ships coming to town.
Over the weekend, the only sure way to tell the WPFG participants apart from the ordinary tourists in Belfast was by the Tayto rucksacks on the athletes' backs.
Next weekend, the House Full signs will go up in Belfast as the 7,000 sports folk will be joined by 5,000 cruise-ship passengers, most of whom will head for the Titanic Visitor Centre to see how their sea-faring predecessors lived. And died.
Yesterday, there was another irony, as the very slipway from which the Titanic was launched played host to the world's rescue services for one of the more unusual disciplines in the games – the Muster.
Scores of curious spectators watched as crews raced each other with hose carts and up and down ladders with buckets of water. The only thing which could have made it more like It's a Knockout was an Eddie Waring commentary.
Trying to pass muster today and tomorrow are the macho men in the Ultimate Firefighter competition, which will be unleashed on the slipways for a series of titanic trials.
Okay, so they're not the Olympics. But, with events like wrist-wrestling, dodgeball and stair-racing, no one ever said they were.
And with an octogenarian striking gold in track and field events and with amorous athletes regularly popping the question, it's patently clear they're the games for everyone.
And maybe that's why so many local people have shown up to demonstrate their support. At the Mary Peters track, the slowest athletes have been cheered as loudly as the fastest ones.
The games, of course, aren't the only show in town – or even in the Titanic Quarter, where another major boost for the economy has been the filming of Game of Thrones, which some firefighters yesterday were surprised to learn was being shot within a waterbucket's throw of them. At the Titanic Centre, WPFG competitors have been swelling visitor numbers to almost unprecedented levels and yesterday people turning up on spec at lunchtime were told they would have to wait several hours.
Officials showing journalists from New Zealand around were also awaiting the arrival of visitors from another Northern Irish summer attraction – young footballers from the Brazilian Corinthians club, who took part in the Milk Cup in the north west.
"It's quite remarkable just how fantastic this has all been for Northern Ireland," said a Tourist Board official. "And the beauty of it is that all the competitors and their supporters, from Milk Cup and the WPFG, will be telling their friends and relatives how good a time they had here, despite the odd riot.
"And we also have the UK City of Culture up in Derry/Londonderry, where the fleadh is going to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors, too."
In west Belfast, too, the Feile is also drawing huge crowds and helping to enhance the city's feelgood factor. Or, as it's known in the area, the Feile good factor...