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What now for sport in Northern Ireland?

We must leave the same old excuses behind us and aim to eclipse Glasgow's medal tally in 2018

By Steven Beacom

Twelve medals. That's what Team Northern Ireland won in Glasgow at the 20th Commonwealth Games.

Two golds, three silvers and seven of the bronze variety.

Four years ago the team took home 10.

An improvement in total then on Delhi and we should all rejoice in that.

The highest number Team NI has ever returned home with was 15 in 1986 when the Games were last staged in Scotland.

It's worth noting though that 32 of the eligible 59 countries, largely African, Asian and Caribbean nations, boycotted the event in Edinburgh 28 years ago because of the British government's policy on keeping sporting links with apartheid South Africa.

You could, therefore, put forward an argument that Northern Ireland have just enjoyed their finest Commonwealth Games ever, even if in 1986 our wee country finished seventh in the medal table, compared with 15th out of 71 countries this time.

On both occasions we won two golds medals, down on 1994 when five top prizes – out of 10 medals overall – were handed out in Victoria, Canada and a 10th place finish on the table was recorded. Maybe then 20 years ago was our greatest performance.

It's a debate that could last as long as the Games themselves.

What is beyond doubt is that the worst performance in modern times came in Melbourne 2006 when just two silver medals were secured.

From two to 12 in eight years. Definitely on the up, but I feel Northern Ireland can still achieve even more.

Think big. What's wrong with that?

Before the Games began I wrote about my concern that Team NI's Chef de Mission Robert McVeigh refused to reveal what our medal target for Glasgow was.

England, Scotland and Wales had publicised their aims, no problem, but for us there was fear that if we didn't hit the target the team would be deemed a failure.

During the Games I was even more concerned to hear suggestions that privately the hope was that the team would bring home five medals.

From 10 in Delhi to five in Glasgow?

You've got to be kidding me. Now that's promoting failure!

Thankfully the Northern Ireland boxers didn't get the email.

Truth be told our kings and queens of the rings saved the day for Team NI by claiming nine of the 12 gongs.

In 2010 the boxers secured half of the medal haul. This time it was three quarters with Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan leading the way as the golden boys (look out for both at the Rio Olympics in 2016), Michaela Walsh making everyone sit up and take notice by grabbing silver along with teenager Joe Fitzpatrick and Alanna Audley-Murphy, Sean Duffy, Sean McGlinchy, Connor Coyle and Steven Donnelly getting to wear bronze.

Barnes, now a double Commonwealth Games champion, shoots from the lip and some of what he says must be taken with a pinch of salt, but he made an interesting observation last week when asked what other sports in Northern Ireland could learn from boxing.

He said: "We are winning these medals because of self belief and ability, but mostly it's the confidence we have. We believe we are the best and we are showing it.

"I think other sports in Northern Ireland could learn from us. You have other sports saying they are facing Australia and they are stronger, but that has to change some time and you have to have that self belief to make it change. The boxers have that same belief."

What's in the body will offer you exciting opportunities in sport.

What's in the head will allow you to take them... or not.

I'm with Barnes on this one. I'd like to see more of our sports stars, amateur and professional, have greater self belief and I would include those who play in the Northern Ireland football team in that plus the Ulster Rugby squad, who while much more impressive than their Windsor Park counterparts at present, seem to lack the killer instinct when the crunch games come at the end of the season.

Assessing Commonwealth athletes, some officials will offer up excuses such as our climate, facilities and funding not being at the same levels as other nations.

There is an element of truth in that but it's an excuse that is wearing thin as in recent years funding has increased for some and facilities have improved, courtesy of public money, for athletes at the refurbished Mary Peters Track in Belfast and for swimmers at the 50m pool in Bangor. With that comes expectation which, as yet, has not been met.

The longer that goes on the more questions our competitors and their coaches will have to face.I'm well aware that many of those representing Team NI in Glasgow were youngsters, whose better days are hopefully ahead of them, and part-time sports stars with normal 9 to 5 full-time jobs, which obviously diminishes practice and playing time, so I do get it, it's tough out there.

But to quote Billy Ocean, whose son competed at the Games, when the going gets tough the tough get going and our sporting stars have to believe, combined with their talent, where there's a will there is a way to make a mark.

In Glasgow Michaela Walsh was an ideal example of what can be achieved.

Her friend Barnes also said in Glasgow that he felt some Irish boxing titles were easier to win than some Commonwealth medals in the ring.

Harsh you may think, but given the standards on the emerald, again, he has a point.

It also brings up a wider issue that in the Commonwealth Games it is definitely harder to win medals in certain sports than others. That's why our bowlers deserve credit for an acceptable return of a silver (Men's Triple team Neil Booth, Neil Mulholland and Paul Daly) and a bronze (Women's Pairs Mandy Cunningham and Barbara Cameron) because their competition was of the highest standard.

Aileen Morrison didn't win a medal, but her sixth place finish in a world class triathlon was an outstanding performance while in athletics Katie Kirk showed real potential in a high quality 800m competition.

Otherwise the track and field largely turned into a nightmare with a number of disappointments, not least our big medal hope Zoe Brown, beaten by the weather and better pole vaulters on the night. World Champion cycling star Martyn Irvine and highly-rated swimmer Sycerika McMahon also underperformed.

They can come again in four years time, but unfortunately Lisa Kearney, who won our first medal of the Games taking bronze, won't be in Australia in 2018 because her sport judo has not been included.

The preparations for the Gold Coast must start now with experts at Sport NI and Sports Institute Northern Ireland (SINI) putting plans in place.

They are going to need them.

The Aussies were behind England in the medal table in Glasgow and if you think that is going to happen again on their home turf, think again.

Australia will want to win every gold, silver and bronze available, so for nations like ours, even in the boxing ring, it is going to be a real test... one though that our sporting stars, coaches and officials should savour.

We won 12 medals in Glasgow. Go for 13 or more in Oz. Always look to improve otherwise sport in Northern Ireland is not doing itself or the public justice.

Belfast Telegraph


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