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Ulster pure gold for Lord Coe

By Steven Beacom

As an athlete in his glorious pomp Sebastian Coe would sprint around the bend and leave rivals trailing in his wake winning race after race after race.

Yesterday, the 56-year-old preferred to adopt a more leisurely pace, letting the youngsters at Salto Gymnastics Club in Lisburn bound energetically around the floor and show their skills on various pieces of apparatus.

He was enjoying what he was seeing. This, he said, was the Olympic legacy in action. This, he said, was what bringing the Games to London last year was all about.

And this was Northern Ireland, a country, Lord Coe says is close to his heart.

"People get it over here," he remarked.

The 2012 Olympics was rated by many as the greatest Games ever. Lord Coe's leadership, direction, work ethic and imagination had much to do with that.

A magnificent athlete, and winner of 1500m Olympic gold medals in 1980 and 1984, he has proved to be even more inspirational and instrumental away from the track, making things happen in the corridors of power.

On the few occasions I've met Coe, he has never failed to impress.

As you would expect he's cool, calm, clever and immaculately turned out. He can talk the high brow politics of sport or relax amid the type of football banter you would get down a pub on the King's Road, nearby the home of his favourite team, Chelsea.

He's makes a point about how well supported the European champions are in Northern Ireland.

There's pride in his voice that the people over here follow his team over there.

I ask him what it is about our wee country that appeals to him.

"I'm quite instinctive about where I go and I've always had a feel for Northern Ireland," he tells me as a bunch of wide-eyed kids race into the hall for their gymnastics session.

"When the metropolitan elite were not that supportive of what we were trying to do I always found comfort in getting out of London and getting into communities where sport really matters to people and it didn't take me long to realise Northern Ireland had that.

"I'm very open about it, that Northern Ireland, if you look at it statistically, provided a higher level of approval for the Olympics over a consistent period than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, so why wouldn't I be a big supporter of Northern Ireland. People get it over here!"

He's on a roll now, as he talks about our sporting psyche.

"I've tried to figure all this out and I guess when someone like Mary Peters did what she did, winning the Olympics in 1972, that lives long in the memory for the people here," he adds.

"In smaller communities that sort of sporting achievement looms large whereas in larger areas you don't tend to get that as much.

"You remember your great days. For instance, the whole of Northern Ireland will tell you they were at Loftus Road the night Barry McGuigan won his boxing world title. That's why the successes you've had in sport resonate so much in Northern Ireland and I love that."

He also makes no secret of his affection for Salto Gymnastics Club and has genuine fondness for the Centre's ground-breaking Chief Executive Officer, Tony Byrne.

Lord Coe, visiting in his role of Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Advisor to the Prime Minister, said: "In a way for me this is like returning to the family. I came here in 2004 and 2005 and Tony said to me that if I won the Olympic bid in Singapore he'd build a world-class gymnastics centre and I said if that happens I'll come back and open it. I came back and have returned a few times since – it means a lot to me to see how it has developed.

"If you asked me in one sentence what captured the essence of the last 10 years it is this gymnastics club. This club is absolutely quintessentially why I went to Singapore and that's why I've come back here because now we are starting the second half of the Olympic journey.

"I always said the journey was 20 years. It was two years to win the right to stage the Olympic Games, eight years to deliver and now over the next 10 years it is up to us to build on everything that we have achieved in the previous 10. I'm sure the people of Northern Ireland can do that.

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