Relief for Rhys McClenaghan as Commonwealth Games decision overturned

Newtownards gymnast Rhys McClenaghan has spoken of his relief after it was confirmed that he and his teammates can compete for Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games.

A decision taken by the International Gymnastics Federation was revised, following cross-party political pressure in Stormont and at Westminster.

"For the younger generation, to see gymnasts from Northern Ireland going to the Commonwealth Games - it must have been difficult for them to see this going on over the past month," Rhys told UTV.

"This is the Commonwealth Games, it's one of the biggest events we go to, so for the younger generation to see this happening and okay, a sigh of relief that I can go to these competitions now, it's a great thing."

McClenaghan and this two teammates, Eamon Montgomery and Ewan McAteer, had been barred by the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) from taking part in the Games in Birmingham because they are licensed to compete for Ireland in international competition.

It 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 NI gymnasts faced the stark choice of missing the event or potentially switching to compete for one of the other home nations.

However on Monday it was confirmed that the controversial decisions had been overturned.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey welcomed the development.

"I spoke to Eamon Montgomery, Ewan McAteer and Rhys McClenaghan following the original decision by FIG and they were devastated by the move," said the minister.

“I am delighted these three talented local athletes can now continue their focused preparations to compete at this year’s Commonwealth Games next month in Birmingham."  

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.

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."