The NI hopefuls eyeing Olympic gold at Paris 2024

4 months ago 180

Rory McIlroy hits a drive during the Tokyo Olympics golf tournamentImage source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Rory McIlroy hopes to become an Olympic champion having missed out on a medal in Tokyo two years ago

By Nigel Ringland

BBC Sport NI

Fifty-two years ago, Mary Peters returned to Belfast as an Olympic champion and it is 36 years since Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood stood on top of the podium along with their Great Britain hockey team-mates.

Northern Ireland has always produced Olympic medallists from post-World War II boxers Freddie Gilroy, John Caldwell, Jim McCourt, John McNally and Hugh Russell as well as athlete Thelma Hopkins and hockey player Billy McConnell.

In the intervening years since 1988 and the success of Martin and Kirkwood, many have come close to winning gold with Wayne McCullough, Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan, Jackie McWilliams, Wendy Houvenaghel, Alan Campbell, Richard Chambers, Peter Chambers and Aidan Walsh all claiming medals.

This summer's Paris Olympics could be historic for Northern Ireland athletes competing for Team GB and Team Ireland with strong hopes that Lady Mary Peters and the two hockey players will be joined on NI's small list of Olympic champions.

Where might that success come from? BBC Sport NI takes a look.

Rhys McClenaghan

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World Gymnastics Championships: Ireland's Rhys McClenaghan retains world title

Rhys McClenaghan is now one of the most recognisable and successful Northern Ireland sports personalities of all time.

Still only 24, he has a Commonwealth Games gold medal and two European titles under his belt and will arrive in Paris as the double world champion on the pommel horse.

But he wants that Olympic title, especially after the pain of Tokyo two years ago. At his best, few can match him. One of them happens to be the double Olympic champion, Max Whitlock from Great Britain, and the prospect of them duelling for gold is truly mouth-watering.

Rowing

Six Northern Ireland rowers qualified their respective boats for Paris at last year's World Championships and barring any injuries, all six should be racing for medals in the summer.

Hannah Scott won her first world title, leading the GB women's quad sculls to victory in Belgrade. The 24-year-old has the legacy of the Bann Rowing Club behind her and she was inspired by the medal success of the Chambers brothers and Alan Campbell at the London 2012 Olympics.

After storming to success at the Worlds, the young, newly formed and motivated quartet should only get better and faster.

Image source, Getty Images

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Coleraine's Hannah Scott secured a single sculls bronze at the 2022 Rowing World Cup and claimed gold in the quadruple sculls at the World Championships in Belgrade in September 2023

Belfast's Rebecca Shorten is a world and European champion in the women's four. At the Tokyo Games in 2021, she narrowly missed out on a medal, finishing fourth.

Last year, with double Olympic champion Helen Glover joining the boat, results weren't as good as expected, but a bronze at the Worlds was still a worthy performance. Expect them to be better this year.

A year ago, there were doubts if GB could field a women's eight. However, they put together a more than capable unit that included Aughnacloy's Rebecca Edwards that was good enough to win a World Cup gold medal and narrowly miss out on the podium at the Worlds. Another hard winter's training together and this boat could easily end up with an Olympic medal.

If it's the women in the Team GB squad to watch out for, it's the men in Team Ireland.

Banbridge's Philip Doyle has silver and bronze medals from the World Championships and would like nothing else than to bounce back from a disappointing performance in Tokyo when everything went wrong.

Then there are the new boys on the lake, the Fermanagh duo of Nathan Timoney and Ross Corrigan who seized their opportunity last year by claiming a surprise bronze medal at the World Championships.

Timoney and Corrigan are not scared of reputations, although with the world watching, they will be exposed to an entirely different level of pressure.

Daniel Wiffen

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Watch: Wiffen caps 'hardest ever period' with world record

Daniel Wiffen is fresh off an astonishing 2023, which he ended in style with an 800m freestyle world record at the European Short Course Championships in December.

Wiffen also secured 400m and 1500m Short Course titles after narrowly missing out on a medal at the World Championships in the summer despite smashing his own Irish records at 800m and 1500m time and time again.

The county Armagh is facing up to a potentially massive 2024. In February, he will aim to become the first Irish swimmer to win a global medal before switching his focus to Paris.

Boxing

As has often been the case through the years, Team Ireland's boxers will have high hopes of Olympic success.

Having qualified for her second Olympics, a medal in Paris for Michaela Walsh would complete a truly great career and cement her legacy as Northern Ireland's most successful female boxer.

Qualification isn't over yet, of course, but Jude Gallagher has hopes of joining Walsh on a Irish team that will be led by defending Olympic champion Kellie Harrington.

Rory McIlroy

Rather like his early views on the Ryder Cup, Rory McIlroy changed his opinion on the Olympics and hopes to add a gold medal to his four major titles after missing out on a medal in Tokyo.

Having helped Europe regain the Ryder Cup in 2023, winning the Masters and completing the career Grand Slam will top McIlroy's priorities this year.

However, the Olympics are expected to feature in a busy summer for McIlroy with the US Open in June and the Open in July.

The Olympics golf tournament will also be played at Le Golf National, where McIlroy helped Europe win the 2018 Ryder Cup.

Ciara Mageean

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Ciara Mageean surprised by world record holder Faith Kipyegon as she wins NI SPOTY award

Like Daniel Wiffen, Ciara Mageean finished off 2023 in fine style, winning the BBC NI Sports Personality of the Year before setting a Park Run world record 24 hours later.

Portaferry's Mageean has put together, at the age of 30, two of the greatest seasons ever by an Irish athlete back-to-back that included silver medals at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, a fourth place at the World Championships and Irish records at 800m, 1000m, 1500m and the mile.

The Olympics owes her after injury just prior to Tokyo saw her exit in the heats. Of all Northern Ireland's medal hopes, however, she arguably has the hardest task given the depth of talent in the women's 1500m.

That's not to say Mageean isn't up for the challenge. She most certainly is.

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