Coleraine Academical Institutution finished me as a sportsman. When I arrived in 1975 my previous high standing as captain of the Killowen Primary School football team counted for nothing. Mostly that's because Inst didn't play football. It was a grammar school. Rugby, cricket and rowing were its sports. And I was too weedy for rugby and rowing. I'd also had an unfortunate encounter with a real cricket ball a year or two earlier which has left me suspicious of the sport ever since.
In first year I stood on the touchline in a mustard yellow top hoping the rugby ball would come nowhere near me before eventually opting out of sport for the weekly run which over the years slowed to a leisurely stroll, dreams of a sporting future shrivelling with every step. By then I was more interested in comic books and movies anyway.
Clearly whatever resentment I might once have felt towards the school's anti-football tendency (and believe me, there were times when it made me livid. I mean, Killowen had won, oh I'd say, maybe two games under my captaincy) has faded because this week I was glued to the TV to watch the two Coleraine Inst "old boys" compete in the rowing at Eton Dorney. To see the emotion and sheer agony on Alan Campbell's face after the single sculls yesterday was to be reminded of the agony and ecstasy of sport. Sitting in a wheelchair trying to respond to John Inverdale's questions he looked in such pain it felt like a cruelty to watch him.And yet today he can feel warmed by his achievement. And in the space of a couple of days my home town can suddenly boast three Olympic medal winners and Coleraine's name has been appearing in national newspaper headlines, following the silver for the Chambers brothers, Richard (who also went to Inst) and Peter in the lightweight four. All three once belonged to the Bann Rowing Club.
Campbell and the Chambers Brothers will undoubtedly receive some kind of civic reception in the near future. If it takes place in the Coleraine town hall they may pass by the statue of another sporting hero of the town, Bertie Peacock which has pride of place in the Diamond. Sport is a way of writing places into the popular consciousness. There are much worse ways. As Northern Ireland knows all too well.