Houston, Shanghai, Istanbul … and Larne. In each of these places, the World Athletics Association has awarded ‘Elite’ status to a half-marathon race. Not bad for my Co. Antrim hometown, boasting a population of 18, 853.
Bringing an event of this status to Larne meant an incredibly colourful, buzzing August Bank Holiday for the town. But it also offers a striking case study in the opportunities that remaining within the UK affords, both for our individual citizens and for Northern Ireland as a whole.
‘Elite’ status meant Larne drew an international group of runners, with top competitors from nineteen different countries descending on the town.
Olympian Jo Pavey even did the kid’s race! ‘Elite’ status provided the opportunity to officially break sporting records, something the fast, flat course invites. The BBC broadcast the whole event live, with several hundred thousand viewers seeing for themselves why Lonely Planet and others consistently vote the Antrim Coast Road as a must-do road trip. The grey tarmac slithered between the greyer seawater and the glistening Antrim Glens. Close by, Jura and the Mull of Kintyre looked solemnly on. They wondered, perhaps, how this purest and most individual of sports could produce such a hypnotic mass spectacle. At any rate, the footage was a huge advert for local tourism.
The spectacle is the achievement of Larne athlete James McIlroy, justly awarded a BEM last year. Back in 1999, James was a rising star in local middle distance running, winning the Irish Senior 1500m title. He was then invited to join the UK Athletics High Performance Centre, an opportunity for UK nationals to undergo training and mentoring at the very highest level. Unfortunately, to seize this opportunity James had to undergo a year-long competitive suspension as his national sporting affiliation was officially changed to the UK. Fortunately, his NI status facilitated the change, and with the year past, McIlroy again hit the track.
For the prurient, the athlete’s religious background, or how he filled in the identity section of the census is unclear. Like his namesake in the golfing world, he appears bemused at being pigeonholed, commenting to the Irish Times:
“I’ve always said it was never a political decision, but you could say it was a sporting decision. In some ways I always felt British, and always felt Irish too”.
McIlroy went on to be both a Commonwealth and Olympic semi-finalist, and to win five British Championships. And if the story ended there, we might celebrate the opportunity Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK provided to one of our talented young people. We might cautiously note the barriers created by the politics of division, perhaps wondering if it was wise to cement those by Northern Ireland also exiting the UK.
But the story was not over. In UK Athletics, James also had the chance to build friendships with the top national athletes of his generation, including the now knighted Mo Farah. When James McIlroy sought to create an event of this magnitude in Larne, he was able to draw on those relationships. There are all sorts of technical hurdles in establishing Elite status such as verified measurements and doping tests. The real challenge, though, is the requirement to field “at least 5 athletes per gender” who have recently recorded an elite time in a previous Half Marathon.
So how could a new race, in Larne of all places, attract the best international runners used to racing in the world’s great cities? Answer: by having your friend, one of the world’s most famous athletes, enter the race, record a brilliant time, and put it on the map as one of the flattest, fastest races available. So, we had the unusual site of Sir Mo Farah storming the roads around Larne, posing for numerous selfies and even slipping in a visit to Larne FC.
Commenting in the Belfast Newsletter in 2020, James said:
“When Mo first broke into the British team we roomed together, but it goes back further than that. We started on the same day in the UK High Performance Centre back in 2001. We’ve known each other 20 years. When he heard the Antrim Coast Half Marathon was on he was endeavouring to try and get over to do it.”.
In short, a weekend of incredible colour, music and sport for athletics, for Larne and for Northern Ireland. And it wouldn’t have happened without our membership of the UK.
Full confession: my athletic career began (and ended) with the primary school egg-and-spoon race. Part of me - probably the middle aged, pot-bellied part - agrees with Seneca. “It is foolish”, claimed Nero’s advisor, “to spends one’s time exercising the biceps, broadening the neck and shoulders and developing the lungs. You will never match a prize ox”.
For those of Seneca’s disposition, just a dozen miles away the same weekend offered the Glenarm Festival of Voice. Again – entirely incidentally – it showcased the benefits of living in the Union. Throughout old churches and castle grounds, beautiful Glenarm offered free recitals and various singing workshops. Various creative sessions for children were held in the local integrated school. BBC Radio 3 was partner for the event airing three live recitals: fantastic exposure for young talent to a nationwide audience. Sean Rafferty, both patron of NI Opera and a BBC Radio 3 presenter hosted the Finale, with the winner being declared NI Opera Young Opera Voice of 2023.
Last year, workshop coach Dr. Ingrid Surgenor noted:
“It is such a thrill for me to be coming home and returning to the beautiful Antrim Coast this year for what is an exciting festival of top-class music making. Most importantly, Glenarm Festival of Voice has given a multitude of Irish and Northern Irish singers a platform on which to launch their careers and for the audience a joyful few days in wonderful surroundings”.
A very different event than the half marathon, but a similar chord: the opportunities provided for a local person, in this case Sean Rafferty, to pursue a career at UK level - and the resulting networking benefit for the entire community in a significant event. And despite the very legitimate criticisms of the BBC licence fee, and its editorial stance, those favouring UK unity should note the common theme of the BBC both as a national institution and in promoting Northern Ireland across the British Isles.
Conversations on the future of the UK understandably gravitate to the extent of the Union dividend: the financial rewards of being part of the world’s fifth largest economy.
Yet life together also brings colour and fun into our everyday lives. We shouldn’t be shy about celebrating that. A statistician may not be able to reduce a friendship or cultural experience to a spreadsheet; a politician may not easily distil it into a soundbite: but it is no less real for that. Across the UK the various breakaway parties undoubtedly offer a potent brew.
The politics of fragmentation and ancient grievances make a heady concoction. Smashing stuff is more exciting than putting it together. But in seeking to increase borders and divisions between the peoples of the British Isles we diminish the opportunities for individuals to fulfil their potential. We curtail the horizons of the next generation.
Sing it out or whisper it softly: life together just makes life a lot more fun.