World athletics event set for Belfast crippled by fund cuts
A major world athletics event set for Belfast this summer has been hit by an ‘ultra’ funding black hole due to government cuts, we can reveal.
The 24hr World Championships will take place on July 1 and 2 and will see 300 of the world’s best Ultra-distance runners converge on the city to see who can run the furthest over a full day.
Athletes and their support teams from 40 countries will compete at Victoria Park in east Belfast with some aiming to beat the world record which stands at a staggering 188 miles for the men and 159 miles for women.
Retired former head of BBC Sport NI Ed Smith won the bid to be the first city in the UK or Ireland to host the event which could bring at least £500,000 into the local economy as well as sell Northern Ireland as a tourist destination across the globe.
But Ed has told the Sunday World he’s been left “embarrassed” by the lack of statutory support for the prestigious event that has left him going ‘cap in hand’ for support.
“Belfast City Council are the only statutory body that has weighed and given us funding and that will amount to 8 per cent of what this will cost,” says Ed.
“We got nothing from the Tourist Board, which was a shock, or any other government department. The Department of Economy told us their budget had been slashed and they simply didn’t have the funds.
“It’s embarrassing to be honest. I have had to go cap in hand with my begging bowl to the public to help make up the shortfall.
“We started a Crowdfunder page and set a target of £5,000 by Thursday (May 4) with the aim of plugging some of the difference.”
Passionate life-long endurance runner Ed, who’s 66 years old, has already staged seven Irish 24hr Championships at the Mary Peters Track in Belfast before moving to Victoria Park because they needed more space as the sport grew so big here.
“Ultra-running has exploded as runners looked for something more challenging than the marathon,” says Ed.
“This is a major world championship in a sport that is growing in prestige which we spent money on bidding to get here.
“Politicians are always saying how great it is to have major sporting events here like the Giro D’Italia, the Irish Open, and the World Police and Fire Games.
“The US team is bringing 18 athletes but a team of 46 to support them including doctors, physios and masseurs, while the UK team is sending a team on a reconnaissance next week. Aside from the 300 top athletes we open up another 100 slots for members of the public to enter and they were sold out straight away with a massive waiting list behind them.
“It’s a huge event and like I say I’m disappointed and embarrassed that I have had to go begging to the running community but they have been fantastic.
“We’ve had people pledging holiday homes abroad to raise money and my own grandkids have even pledged their pocket money.”
And he says that while he’d think twice about bringing such a big event to Northern Ireland again, he has to make sure the July event takes place.
“There’s no turning back for me despite the economic shortfall,” says Ed. “I owe it to the athletes who have booked flights from places like New Zealand, China and Japan to make sure this all goes ahead.
“And anyway I want to see the world’s best distance runners competing here in Belfast. I want to see if the women’s world record can be broken.”
The event has the support of all the leading athletics bodies in the UK and Ireland and has the support of sponsors like gas suppliers Energia, Charles Hurst and Schneider Electric.
“It’s a massive logistical operation,” says Ed. “We have to build everything for the teams including tents and lights as the event obviously goes right through the night. It looks spectacular – not unlike the Le Mans 24-Hours car race with all the pit teams.
“We will have the Irish champion here. He set the Irish record here of 152 miles in 24 hours and he did it on not much more than a Jaffa cake and a couple of smoothies.
“It’s an incredible spectacle – Niall McKenna [chef from James Street South] comes up at midnight with giant bowls of pasta and my wife makes a huge pot of porridge.
“But you never know what the athletes are going to eat.
“The first year we had the Irish Championships and I put out bananas, sports gels and energy drinks for everyone and then a pizza delivery man arrived for one of the teams.”