Friday, 27 July 2012

Olympic Cycles

There are three Olympic stories told in Whose Side Are You On? The first is the most famous - the story of Mary Peters who left a bleak, bomb-blasted Belfast in 1972 to travel to Munich to compete in the Pentathlon. After two days of competition she returned to Northern Ireland with a gold medal hanging around her neck (and a death threat hanging over her head). Hers is the great Northern Irish Olympic story. The story of an athlete who pushed herself and pushed herself and got her rewards. I always think her success is underrated in the British Olympic story, given the paucity of facilities she had to train on in Belfast at the time and the violence that marked the city at that time (no mention, for example, in this morning's Radio Four Olympic montage).

Then there's Wayne McCullough's story. McCullough is one of Northern Ireland's best ever boxers, born and raised in the heart of Protestant Shankill.who represented Ireland - because boxing is organised on an all-island basis in Ireland - in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 at the age of 17. He was asked to carry the Irish flag at the opening ceremony and maybe was too young to realise how that would be perceived back in parts of Belfast.
The third story is the least well known, I guess. But I thought it's worth retelling here because it's a little cameo of the way sports stories are constantly at the mercy of politics. It concerns a cyclist called Noel Teggart, a lorry driver from Banbridge. Teggart was 31. He was representing Ireland, cycling, like boxing, being one of those sports organised on an all-island basis. Unfortunately there were other Irishmen in Munich  who were keen to make a protest. Members of the National Cycling Association, an organisation banned by the sport, wanted to make a protest against the "British occupation of Northern Ireland". To do so they hid in a ditch all night with the aim of then jumping up and interrupting the race.
Unfortunately, they didn't realise the race had been delayed for 24 hours. Still, they were back in the ditch 24 hours later and when it finally got underway they emerged from hiding, grabbed Teggart's bike and refused to let him move for a couple of minutes, by which time whatever chances he had in the race were long gone.
The story of cycling in Ireland after partition is a litany of organisations being banned and new organisations being formed usually along religious and political lines. Teggart was unfortunate in that his story was subsumed into this larger one.
And to little purpose in the end. Although the NCA's protest - although widely reported in Ireland, north and south - was largely ignored by the rest of the world. That's because the Palestinian Black September group had by then mounted their own protest by seizing Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. The siege ended in a gun battle that killed nine of the athletes. It remains the greatest disaster in Olympic history and the greatest stain on the Olympic ideal. The 40th anniversary of that tragedy is just around the corner. 

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