Celebrating Northern Ireland’s Olympic Past and Future in Antrim and Dervock

This week features two events highlighting Northern Ireland’s Olympic past and future in athletics.

Tomorrow evening, 18 July, will be an opportunity to see top local athletes compete against Olympic runners from Qatar, Egypt, Oman and Djbouti. The Antrim Stadium will play host to the first Brian Downing Memorial International, organised by Athletics Northern Ireland and Lagan Valley Athletics Club, at 7 pm.

Saturday 21 July the Kennedy Kane McArthur Festival of Running will take place in Dervock. This event honours the Northern Ireland-born athlete who, running in the colours of South Africa, won the Olympic Marathon in Stockholm in 1912. The Festival will include road races over the marathon, half marathon and 10k distance.

Brian Downing Memorial

Athletes from four Middle Eastern countries are based in Antrim for their Olympic Pre-Games Training Camps. The Brian Downing Meeting offers them one last competitive test before taking to the big stage in London. Among the most notable athletes are Ayanleh Soulieman (Djbouti), a finalist over 1500 metres at the 2012 World Indoor Championships; Hasma Driouch (Qatar), who won the World Junior 1500 metres last week; and Musaeb Bala (Qatar) who has a PB of 1:45.19 over 800 metres from this year.

Among the top local athletes is Ballymena and Antrim’s Joanna Mills, who has been selected to represent Ireland in the 4 X 400 metres relay at the Olympics. The 19-year-old, who was a semi-finalist in the 400 metres at the recent World Junior Championships, made the team after a successful appeal after initially being left off the squad in controversial circumstances. (Mills’ selection will not be assured until Monday when the Olympic Council of Ireland hears an appeal from Kilkenny’s Caitriona Cuddihy over her de-selection.)

Kennedy Kane McArthur Festival of Running

Springwell Running Club along with Dervock and District Community Association are organising the Kennedy Kane McArthur Festival to ‘mark the centenary of McArthur’s historic gold medal win over the marathon distance in Stockholm.’ Organisers are hoping for 1,000 competitors in the three races.

Ballymoney Borough Council has an excellent website telling the story of McArthur’s life and running career. The Ballymoney Museum also has an exhibition on McArthur (running through 22 September), which includes photographs and film footage, his Olympic team blazer, and his number from the Olympic marathon. These items are on loan from Potchefstroom Museum, South Africa, where McArthur is remembered as a hero (the stadium in Potchefstroom is named after him).

There is an e-book about McArthur by Lennie Gouws titled Marathon Mac from Potchefstroom. His story is also featured prominently in a booklet written in 2008 by John Glover (a former president of Athletics Northern Ireland), The Marathon in Northern Ireland: A History. Glover describes McArthur’s victory this way (p. 4-5):

Some few minutes after 3.45 pm the race began in extremely hot and sunny conditions on the track in front of the Swedish  Royal family and proceeded out to the village of Sollentuna and back. McArthur did not contest the early pace set firstly by local favourite Alexis Ahlgren and then by the Finn Kolehmainen whose brother Hannes won Gold in the 5000m, 10,000m and Cross Country at the same Olympiad. By the turn McArthur’s teammate Gitsham had taken a 15 seconds lead over the Finn with McArthur, wearing number 613, a further 35 seconds in arrears.

In the latter stages the Finn retired and the South Africans ran together until Gitsham paused to take a drink. McArthur, who had resolutely avoided any refreshment, opened a gap and entered the Stadium in the lead. It was at this point that he claims to have heard a voice from the crowd shouting “Come on Antrim, come on yae boy yae!” Certainly if the London Correspondent of the Cape Times is to be believed he was greeted with much enthusiasm.

“And in comes the conqueror, a flushed and dusty vision in green and gold … The throng jumps to its myriad feet with a roar. What feet could rest inactive at such a sight? … he had defied the augury of Phoebus himself, and a burning sun, poured rentlessly (sic) down upon him …”

Thus Northern Ireland could lay claim to a native born Olympic Champion.

… Following his victory McArthur had no doubt about his heritage as he departed Stockholm and headed straight for Dervock where he arrived on 25th July to a hero’s welcome.



Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com