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Northern Ireland’s gymnasts win their fight to compete at Commonwealth Games

Rhys McClenaghan (centre) shocked Max Whitlock on the Gold Coast (Danny Lawson/PA)
Rhys McClenaghan (centre) shocked Max Whitlock on the Gold Coast (Danny Lawson/PA)

Northern Ireland’s gymnasts have won their fight to compete at next month’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The three-strong team, including reigning pommel champion Rhys McClenaghan, had been barred by the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) because they are licensed to compete for Ireland in international competition.

But the controversial ruling has been overturned, with McClenaghan tweeting: “I’m delighted to finally be allowed to compete at the Commonwealth Games. I get the opportunity to retain my title, compete with my team mates and represent everybody who has assisted and supported me in this difficult time.”

The announcement had led to a storm of protest, with Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland accusing the FIG of having “completely disregarded” the Good Friday agreement with its actions.

The FIG had initially been unrepentant, indicating that Northern Ireland gymnasts faced the stark choice of missing the event or potentially switching to compete for one of the other home nations.

Sport Northern Ireland welcomed FIG’s decision but said the saga emphasised the need to reach an international consensus on the eligibility of its athletes.

2018 Commonwealth Games – Day Four
Rhys McClenaghan is one of Northern Ireland’s biggest sports stars (Danny Lawson/PA)

Sport NI chief executive Antoinette McKeown said: “Fairness for all the athletes involved was at the heart of this matter and that is why we’re delighted to see this issue resolved with a positive outcome for our gymnasts and their sport.

“This issue has highlighted the need for a clear international consensus when it comes to Northern Irish athletes, and we will be engaging in wider conversations to pursue this aim.”

McClenaghan shot to prominence when he beat Olympic champion Max Whitlock to win gold on the Gold Coast in 2018. The following year he won a world bronze medal in Stuttgart on the same apparatus.

The UK Government’s sports minister Nigel Huddleston praised the move, adding in a statement: “I am delighted to see that a solution has been found that will allow Rhys, Ewan and Eamon to compete and recognises the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

“I am extremely grateful to the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) for working with the athletes, the Commonwealth Games Federation, Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland and the government to find an agreeable solution.

“Birmingham 2022 will be a fantastic event and we look forward to welcoming all athletes who have been selected to compete.”