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Recriminations as sports administrators claim province will miss out on Olympic legacy

A planned £27 million velodrome in Northern Ireland is one of five high-profile sports facility projects to have fallen victim to £50 million in government cuts affecting the province.

Besides the velodrome, which would have been the first such facility in Northern Ireland and was to be built in Downpatrick, other projects that have now been shelved are a tennis centre at Hillsborough, a sailing facility in Ballyholme, an athletics centre in Antrim and a Basketball centre at Lisburn.

Original plans for the velodrome provided for other facilities including a leisure centre with two swimming pools, a cycle speedway track and BMX arena, and besides changing facilities there would also have been a lounge and short-stay hostel for athletes, according to a report last year by Down News.

Although money has already been spent on plans for the velodrome, which it was envisaged would provide a training facility for cyclists preparing for the London 2012 Olympic Games, as well as the other facilities, the Northern Ireland Executive now says it has no cash to build them.

Sports Minister Nelson McCausland told the BBC that the projects had been axed because none of them had yet been able to convince decision-makers that they were based on a sound viable business model.

"With all of them, when they were scrutinised by Sport NI and by the economists internally it became clear that there were significant issues that needed to be reviewed.

"The fact is we have still not received a single satisfactory business case."
Mr McCausland added: "I fought very hard for sport in our capital programme and over the next four years we will have £130m of capital spend on sports infrastructure in Northern Ireland.

"There are a range of competing interests and competing demands."

Eamonn O’Neill, chairman of Down District Council, within whose area the planned velodrome is located, described himself as "angry and annoyed" at the plug being pulled on funding.

"We are running up bills of close to £50,000 either spent or committed to be spent already, on the basis of what was described to us as ring-fenced money," he revealed.
"We were described as a preferred candidate, we had reached that status."

The news will come as a blow to cyclists from Northern Ireland hoping to emulate the success of multiple world champion Wendy Houvenaghel, who at Beijing in 2008 broke a 16-year Olympic medal drought across all sports for Northern Irish athletes when she took silver in the individual pursuit behind Rebecca Romero.

Indeed, there is now bitterness and recriminations across all five sports to have missed out on their new facilities, with the Belfast Telegraph claiming that “the Olympic legacy for Northern Ireland will be broken promises and broken dreams.”

The newspaper quoted Cycling Ulster chairman Tommy Lamb, who called the decision a “very dark day for Cycling Ulster and sport in general.”

It added that the velodrome had been five years in the planning, and that Mr Lamb and his colleagues had been sure that securing the planned £17 million funding towards the project from the Stormont government would be a formality.

“We are devastated by this news,” said Mr Lamb. “We know that we have the potential here to produce Olympic champions, the success at the Commonwealth Games of riders like Martin Irvine and Sean Downey showed that.

“Here were guys doing well on the track who do not have an indoor facility. We have invested heavily in track cycling on the back of the promise, a politician’s promise, that we would get the velodrome. We were 90 per cent sure that it was coming our way.

“That’s why we have been so focused on the velodrome and the south have been holding back for five years because this was to be a national centre of excellence.

“We were told by David Hanson, the minister when this legacy promise was made, that sport here would enjoy all the spin-offs from London 2012 and we have spent thousands putting a business plan together and the Councils involved have all spent a small fortune on the bidding process, Belfast, Newry and Downpatrick.

“When Downpatrick got through to the next stage we were very positive, we brought in a track specialist from Europe to help put the business plan together and now it’s all been a waste of time.

“We had been told they would be ready before the Games started but then recently the plan was for it to be built in 2013. It leaves cycling in a very tough spot but we will keep working towards getting a national indoor facility.

“This decision is a bit like finding a new George Best and then telling him you can’t play in football boots. It’s very unfair to expect our young cyclists to compete against those who have indoor facilities.”

John Allen, chairman of Athletics Northern Ireland, which misses out on an indoor arena that was scheduled to cost no more than £8 million, highlighted that Northern Ireland would now miss out on having an Olympic legacy and put the money withheld from the five facilities into the context of much larger sums being received by other sports.

“A monumental amount of time and money has been wasted on this. When London won the right to stage the Olympics that’s when we were told that Northern Ireland would have a legacy from it, so we got to work and Antrim Council came up with the proposal of the indoor facility beside the outdoor facility,” he explained.

“We were told that teams would be coming here to train but now that has gone and it is a huge blow to the sport here and leaves way, way behind the rest of Europe.

“Our facilities are not up to scratch and we have the 2014 Commonwealth Games coming up and then another Olympics and I’m sure people will be asking why have we not got more Olympians and one of the reasons will be because we don’t have the facilities.

“But while this money has been taken away there remains £110m still in place for football, GAA [Gaelic games] and rugby.

“We have been granted a meeting next week with Sports Council and then we’ll take the matter from there, we don’t want to lie down on this,” he added.
 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.