The Gold Standard:

How Northern Ireland's Olympic hopes have weathered the Pandemic

It’s been a strange year. Phrases like the new normal, now more than ever and in these uncertain times have become so familiar that, by now, most of us don’t even register their meaning. This is even truer for the world of sport. Everyone from athletes to managers, sports administrators to government representatives, have been forced to radically adapt their sports business models to reflect the new realities of social distancing. As you can imagine, this has been especially difficult given that many sports rely on close physical contact.

Despite these setbacks, a glimmer of hope seemed to emerge last month when the Japanese government announced that the Tokyo Olympics would take place this summer, running from 23 July to 08 August. This will give Northern Ireland athletes like trap shooter Kirsty Hegarty – representing Team GB – track runner Eilish Flanagan and hockey player Ayeisha McFerran – representing Team Ireland – the chance to show their skills on the world stage for the first time.

Others, like Team Ireland gymnast Rhys McClenaghan – who bagged a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships – Paralympic sprinter Jason Smyth – who holds a record five gold medals from previous competitions – and silver medal-winning rower Philip Doyle, will be hoping to repeat past successes and solidify themselves among the pantheon of great Northern Ireland athletes like Mary Peters and Rory McIlroy.

Most of us can only imagine how difficult training must’ve been for these athletes, given that the Games have already been delayed for a year and key facilities – such as swimming pools, running tracks and gyms – have had little to no access as a result of various lockdowns. Friends and family will be unable to attend events owing to Japan’s restrictions on admitting international fans to the Games, and the all too crucial “twelfth player” i.e. fans – to borrow from football terminology – will similarly have to enjoy proceedings remotely.

This is why – as the only fans permitted to attend the Games – the Northern Ireland diaspora in Japan will be playing a more vital role than ever! Channelling the spirit of Euro 2016 – when Northern Ireland sports fans turned out in force and did the region proud with displays of good cheer and camaraderie – we’re confident that the same can be replicated in Tokyo.

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