Brendan Mulgrew: We do things well here - and success breeds success
YOU may not have heard of Yalemzerf Yehualaw, but two weeks ago in Larne, the 22 year old Ethopian runner broke the world record for the women’s half marathon, when she won the female elite Antrim Coast race in an amazing time of 63 minutes and 43 seconds, the first woman to run under 1hour 4mins for the 13.1 mile distance.
The world record was reported extensively in local and regional media and across the sports pages throughout the UK, Ireland north and south, and beyond. Importantly it was reported in specialist athletics and running publications and websites such as Runners World, Inside Running, Athletics Weekly and Lets Run.com.
The elite race was transmitted live on BBC website with the analysis provided by multi Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah and more than 100,000 tuned in at 8am to see the event live. All the stories and coverage mentioned not just the world record but the beauty of the location, the suitability of the course and the fast times recorded in what is now a major annual sporting event.
Indeed the event is now officially credited as a World Athletics Series Event so it will only get bigger with each passing year. Credit goes to the organiser James McIlroy, to Tourism NI for getting behind the event and to all the local runners who gave it full support.
Other sport events have been back for a few months now including the weekly 5k park run. But with the branding in place in Larne, the TV cameras on the route and even a little bit of chaos at the start line due to the numbers taking part, this felt more real and helped to create a race day atmosphere which had been sadly missed since March 2020. Success breeds success, and I am sure organisers of this event are planning already for increased entrants, a repeat of live broadcast coverage and even more international profile next year and beyond.
Events like this matter because as we emerge from the ravages of Covid and continue with rebuilding our economy it is important that the tourism sector is facilitated in reaching its potential. Covid may have blurred some memories but it is not too long ago that Northern Ireland staked a well deserved claim as a destination for major global events with MTV Music Awards, the Giro Italia, the World Police and Fire Games among many other hugely successful events.
The cruise ships are returning, there are again queues of visitors at the hop on and off red buses. Writers Square in the Cathedral Quarter has been full - within the bounds of its reduced capacity - for the MELA and Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival events over the last few weekends.
I took part in the Antrim Coast race and at different points on the route, was in the company of runners from Mullingar, Donegal, Dublin, Cork, Bath and Glasgow. It was a joy to see all the visitors from across our islands (well, as joyful as trying to run fast for 13 miles can be!).
If you have been in any Belfast hotels or restaurants lately you will have noticed the remarkable number of customers with southern accents and anecdotal evidence suggests the same experience in other towns across Northern Ireland.
Tourism NI head John McGrillen has earmarked 2024 as the year that the sector makes a full recovery to the pre Covid numbers with 80 per cent of the activity and employment levels being reached by summer 2022. It's refreshing to see an ambitious target being set by a public body because pre-Covid we had reached a high point of 2.2 million visitors. More than two thirds of those came from GB, so the new £5 million advertising campaign which was launched just last week and which will see a multi media campaign across GB pushing the ‘Giant Spirit’ brand online, on TV and on billboards is very timely and very welcome.
Commuters, shoppers and online newspaper readers will soon be seeing images of Giants Causeway, Gobbins Bridge and the Titanic museum onscreen and on their high streets. Bring it on!
The economic recovery plans which have been published recently, and there have been more than one, have put an emphasis on emerging economic sectors including cyber security, research & innovation and the green economy and promoting companies engaged in export trade.
That is all very welcome, but really the role and potential of the tourism sector should have featured more prominently too. With new tourism offerings in the pipeline not just in Belfast but across the north we should be planning for increased incoming visitors year upon year - each one spending time and money and contributing to our economy.
Unfortunately for those runners who had planned to take part in the Dublin marathon next month, that event was officially cancelled in July. It was no coincidence that on the very same day of that announcement, the Belfast marathon set for October 3 officially sold out.
We can expect to see hundreds of cross border runners that day and hopefully that gives the Belfast race the boost to go on to become a major European marathon event. We do events well here, so why should that not be our ambition?
:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter at @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken