Northern Ireland gymnast Rhys McClenaghan on Thursday night launched an impassioned plea for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) to overturn their stunning decision to ban him and two of his team-mates from July’s Commonwealth Games.
The Newtownards man, Belfast’s Eamon Montgomery and Lisburn’s Ewan McAteer have all been excluded from the Birmingham Games as they have represented Ireland in other events.
“I was born in Northern Ireland, my residence is in Northern Ireland and I represented and won Gold for Northern Ireland in the last Commonwealth Games,” McClenaghan, who claimed his gold medal on the pommel horse, wrote on Twitter.
“I feel that FIG do not understand the gravity of the Belfast Agreement and the unique situation pertaining to Northern Ireland. Every other sport understand the eligibility of Northern Irish athletes in accordance with Commonwealth Games.
“I would like to ask the FIG to reconsider their decision and allow us to compete at the Commonwealth Games.”
Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland is planning an appeal after what it described an “incomprehensible” decision to exclude the three gymnasts from Birmingham.
Despite all three athletes being born in Northern Ireland and having Northern Irish parents, the FIG ruled that because they routinely compete for Ireland at events where Northern Ireland do not participate, they are not eligible to compete for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games.
This decision comes even though both McAteer and McClenaghan competed for Northern Ireland at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where the latter won gold on the pommel horse.
“We all work so hard in the lead-up to these competitions and for a competition of this magnitude, it is one of the biggest ones for all of us, to be taken away from us like that is very disappointing,” admitted 22-year-old McClenaghan.
“It has left my team-mates and I in limbo, we do not know if we are competing and that is not a very nice mindset to go into training with every day. You want a definitive date to work towards, it is very disruptive for that to be disrupted by the FIG like this.
“I am hoping that the International Gymnastics Federation will realise that they do stand alone in this decision and hopefully that decision can be reviewed.
“My hope is to compete in the Games and retain the gold medal. It’s just a hoping game now.”
A CGNI statement read: “Historically, TeamNI at all Commonwealth Games has included athletes across a range of sports who have chosen to represent either (Ireland) or (Great Britain) at European Championships, World Championships and Olympic Games.
“The FIG appear to have completely disregarded the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the unique situation pertaining to Northern Ireland. They are out of step with our other member sports.
“Commonwealth Games NI will continue to support our athletes, and we are determined that they will represent Northern Ireland at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. We hope to see the FIG reconsider their position.”
Sport NI also released a statement backing the three gymnasts and offered their support to try and help overturn the decision.
“Northern Ireland is a place of complex identities, and the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement sought to balance these delicate relationships by affording people the greatest possible choice to be British, Irish, Northern Irish, and any or all of the above,” said chief executive Antoinette McKeown.
“In the past decade Sport NI has worked with partners to ensure sport shows equal flexibility to accommodate and afford our local athletes the widest possible opportunity to compete.
“At international level, most competitions see our local athletes choose to compete for either Team Great Britain, or Team Ireland. The Commonwealth Games is a welcome opportunity for Northern Ireland athletes, whatever their community background or political opinion, to represent their region, and we have a proud history of them doing so.
“The ruling by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) does not respect the unique circumstances or complexity of identity within Northern Ireland, and we fully support the Commonwealth Games NI in its efforts to have this decision overturned.
“We will also be using our relationships with colleagues in Great Britain to ensure the wider sporting community recognises this decision serves the interests of no one.”