Liam Morgan

Judging by the enthusiasm and excitement which was palpable throughout a special event at Belfast City Hall earlier this week, you would have thought Northern Ireland had just been awarded the Olympics rather than the Commonwealth Youth Games. 

This is not a criticism. It was, in fact, refreshing to see such passion and fervour for the event among a small representation of a country which has seen plenty of dark days in recent times.

"The Troubles", as they are often referred to, put the country on the map for all the wrong reasons.

Around 3,600 lives are believed  to have been lost as a result of prolonged violence and bloodshed in the region, sparked by political and religious hatred, between 1968 and 1998.

They were largely centred on a split in political views between the Nationalists, who believe in a united Ireland, and the Unionists, who want Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, as well as the age-old tension between Protestants and Catholics.

Reminders of the conflict and bloodshed, which tore Northern Ireland apart, are still evident across the city today, such as the existence of Peace Walls, tall structures which separate the feuding factions within Belfast in a bid to stop them from, quite literally, killing each other.

In some areas of the city, you can find some of the most famous political murals in Europe, which depict the regions past and present divisions within culture and society, and the tour guide who narrated my journey through Belfast even wanted people on the bus to keep their voices down, purely in order to avoid anyone expressing what may have been an unpopular opinion in that particular area too loudly.

Yet, while it would be naïve to suggest the country is completely free of the issues which have littered its turbulent past, the progression of the city of Belfast as a whole, coupled with the smiles that adorned the faces of many at the celebratory event, provided enlightening evidence of a happier time to be from Northern Ireland.

The official announcement declaring the small nation, which has a population of less than two million, as hosts of the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games was attended by a wide range of local and national media, all eager to bask in the success brought about by the tireless work of the Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council (NICGC).

Yes, they were the only bidder for the event following the withdrawals of Jersey and Botswana, but the CGF still had to be impressed enough by Northern Ireland’s bid to award them the Games. In fact, the decision from the Channel Island to pull out came about after they witnessed the presentation from the NICGC, which effectively blew them out of the water.

A special event was held at Belfast City Hall to celebrate Northern Ireland being awarded the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games
A special event was held at Belfast City Hall to celebrate Northern Ireland being awarded the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games ©Belfast 2021

Northern Ireland’s proposal to stage the seventh edition of the Commonwealth Youth Games was described as “very impressive” and “second to none” by CGF President Louise Martin, the mother of the event as a concept, and seemed too good to turn down. Sole bidder or not.

Of course, now the hard work begins. There are still five years to go until the event itself but those involved will know that will fly by, and one particularly famous Northern Irishwoman can’t wait to get started.

None of the attendees at the unveiling ceremony quite displayed the exuberance and enthusiasm of Dame Mary Peters, considered one of the country's greatest-ever athletes after she won the Olympic gold medal in the pentathlon at Munich 1972. She was positively beaming throughout our brief chat, which took place after the food had been polished off and the guests of honour had been ushered out of the door.

“It’s a very big day for us,” she told me. “I’m very excited and I have no doubt that it will be brilliant.

“Belfast is very generous in supporting sporting events and I know that Britain will get behind it.

“They’ll be well supported, that’s for sure. I was delighted with the turnout today – I thought it would just be a small event in the Mayor’s parlour!”

Dame Mary, also a three-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist, epitomises everything that is truly great about sport. Her passion and zeal still shines through today and she appeared genuinely delighted that her tiny nation had secured the rights to a multi-sport event which remains in its infancy.

Few are more deserved of their widespread acclaim than the 76-year-old, whose cheery grin lit up City Hall like a beacon in the dark Belfast night, as she continues to be a heartthrob of the nation with her effortless determination to help Northern Ireland’s sporting development and her commitment to charity work.

She is the founder of the Mary Peters Trust, a charity which offers 120 bursaries to people involved in all sports to help them get on what, she calls, the “ladder to success”.

How fitting, then, that athletics events at the Belfast 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games are likely to be held at a venue which proudly adorns her name. Dame Mary hopes, however, that won’t be her only connection to the event in five years’ time.

The Commonwealth Youth Games are the brainchild of CGF President Louise Martin
The Commonwealth Youth Games are the brainchild of CGF President Louise Martin ©Getty Images

“I hope as patron [of the NICGC] they will involve me in some way,” she said.

“They’ll have to have an Organising Committee and they’ll have to have a wide range of people from tourism to people with financial knowledge and other sporting people who know how such a Games work. The NICGC will also obviously be heavily involved in the process.

“I would love to have a role on the Organising Committee because of my experience but I do have a lot of other things to do.”

Dame Mary is all too aware that at the very essence of the event as a concept, developed by Martin in 2000 after she feared not enough was being done to help the development of young athletes across the Commonwealth, is youth.

Promoting the mantra comes as second nature to a woman who plays a key role in the future of sport in her country and she says staging the Commonwealth Youth Games will bring a range of benefits to the nation.

“The athletes will inspire the next young people and I think you always perform better at an event when you are competing in front of home support,” Dame Mary said.

“Look at the future - these young people are the future of our country and if they do well in sport it gives them a lift in life.”

Casting an eye towards the future remains pivotal for a country which dare not look back. Some of the athletes who compete at Belfast 2021 will have had relatives with first-hand experience of Northern Ireland’s tumultuous and difficult past.

Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters is likely to have a big role to play in Northern Ireland's preparations for the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2021 ©Getty Images
Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters is likely to have a big role to play in Northern Ireland's preparations for the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2021 ©Getty Images

Dame Mary herself is no stranger to "The Troubles". Her training for the Munich Games was interrupted because of Bloody Friday, where the Irish Republican Army unleashed a series of coordinated bombings on Belfast, killing nine and wounding over 100. More than 20 bombs went off in the city in just an 80-minute period.

Amidst the chaos enveloping the country, Dame Mary defied the odds and took gold in the German city to elevate her to a status which she still enjoys nowadays, and rightly so.

When asked whether she believes staging multi-sport events is especially important for a country like Northern Ireland, so often remembered for its problems rather than its successes, she replied emphatically: "Absolutely - the door is always open and more and more people our coming here now."

It is testament to her positivity that she feels that way, despite all she has been through and all she has seen in her 76 years on the planet. If even a shred of her attitude can be harnessed in the right manner, expect a superb display of Commonwealth youth sport in Belfast five years from now.