Belfast Telegraph

Pointing the way to Olympic success

Our next generation of sporting heroes need greater investment in coaching and facilities to help them win, says Brian Rowan

For me the Olympics are not about flags and anthems; not about the narrow minded nonsense of Team GB versus Team Ireland. Sport is about performances and records; personalities and characters; about who can run the fastest, box the smartest, jump the highest, cycle or swim the quickest.

And the games in London provided another stage; a stage on which Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Bradley Wiggins, David Rudisha, Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and the boxers Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams could shine and inspire.

The medals for Coleraine, Belfast and Dublin are just pieces in a jigsaw; pieces that join together to create a much bigger sporting scene.

That picture is always developing, and beyond London the question becomes, what next?

My roots are in sport; in track and cross-county running many years ago, in a few medals at local junior level, and my first taste of reporting was scribbling my thoughts on track and field.

I can remember times here when sport could easily have been lost; buried under the headlines and news of conflict.

There was one such moment in 1981 when an Olympic champion came to the rescue.

It was the period of the IRA hunger strike; May of that year.

For the first time, the UK Track and Field Championships were to be staged at Antrim, and in the week before the games two of the hunger strikers - Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O'Hara - died.

It was a time of fear; a time when everything else was pulled into and under that swamp of 'Troubles' news.

On television Mary Peters appealed to athletes to come, and then Steve Ovett arrived.

He was the then Olympic champion at 800 metres and his presence rescued the running and jumping and throwing of that two-day championship.

There are moments in sport that we all remember, long after much else has been forgotten.

For me two such moments were being at Loftus Road in London when Barry McGuigan won his world boxing title in 1985; and then at St Andrews in 2007 when Rory McIlroy, having just stepped out of the amateur game, confirmed his ability to play at the highest level of golf.

That day, October 7 2007, he finished third in a European Tour event; a big step into the professional game in which he has since become a Major Champion.

And success makes more success.

The American Michael Johnson was a multiple sprint champion, who spent the period of the London Olympics scrutinising and analysing the events of track and field as part of the BBC team for the Games.

And, last week, he talked not just about Usian Bolt, but how he has influenced and inspired other Jamaican sprinters.

They had just won all three medals in the 200 metres.

And when you step down from that world stage to a local level, you see how the big names of sport - whether in athletics or golf - can motivate and make others want to achieve.

You can see it in Holywood at McIlroy's home town club.

Rory Williamson has just become Ulster Boys' Champion and Jessica Carty Irish Girls' Champion.

"In golfing terms 1% make it on tour," the club's professional Stephen Crooks told the Belfast Telegraph.

But close to 200 junior players are now on the books at Holywood, dreaming and wanting to be stars.

"They get to see Rory's life style," Crooks added.

"They get to see him on TV.

"Just by seeing a role model like that gives them the belief that they can do it."

Recently, as part of a corporate day, McIlroy hosted a coaching clinic for the young players, with the money raised going to the Holywood club and junior development.

And in sport these are the things that are important; development, facilities, coaching, equipment, funding and all the other ingredients that are needed to help competitors achieve their best.

The focus is on taking them to the next stage of performance whether at local, regional or international level.

And when we watch the few who get to the biggest stage, it should not matter to us whether they choose to compete for Team GB or Team Ireland.

The vest, the flag, the anthem should not be the things on which they are judged, but their times, distances, heights cleared, medals/titles won, finals made, who they outscored, out rowed or outpunched.

Our collective thinking should be applied to the things that really matter, to providing the best facilities, coaching, equipment and all the other support bits that are needed.

And if that package is there then it will attract the best in sport; those who are striving for excellence, those who are looking for all it will take to help them be their best.

So, the focus should be on those things that really matter, those things that make a difference.

In that respect the investment of £3m by the sports minister Caral Ni Chuilin is a step in the right direction improving facilities for the next generation of young fighters and - hopefully - medal winners.

This year golf has shown what can be achieved and when staged here, what can be built on the foundations of success. And it is time to build again, not just on the winning of McIlroy, McDowell and Clarke, but on the medals of the Olympics achieved by those in the colours of Team GB and Team Ireland.

How much could sport - north and south - be improved by listening to the golfers, the rowers, the boxers and the coaches and support teams that have helped them to new heights?

And the more they influence and inspire, the greater the chance of finding that 1% - that next McIlroy, or Barnes, or Taylor, or Chambers or Campbell.

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