Domhnall MacAuley is a CMAJ Associate Editor and a professor of primary care in Northern Ireland, UK.
This week, with the newspapers full of health scares, doping controversy and the anticipation of all sort of problems in the run-up to the Rio Olympic games, let me tell you a good news story….
It was the height of the troubles in Belfast, in the midst of the hunger strikes, with frequent riots, shootings and bombs. I had just qualified and was completing junior doctor jobs in a hospital a few miles from our home in west Belfast. Running to and from the hospital, I often passed the still smouldering debris of last night’s burnt out cars. Our local athletics club met not far from our home, and the surgery where I was to practice as a GP for 30 years. It was a club without premises, track, or any permanent home. We met in the evening at the local day centre, and we'd run through the streets of west Belfast and beyond.
I don’t know how many members there were but it seemed like hundreds of young people gathered there on winter evenings. During the “Troubles” Belfast was a virtual desert. Young people in the area had little social life at that time - with few cinemas or discos and without any real social outlet. The risks of going out were too great. People seldom ventured beyond their immediate area and the city centre was completely closed off at night. So the running club was one of the few opportunities to meet, and local boys and girls flocked to training. Looking back, I don’t know how they kept track of who came to training; siblings, neighbours and friends simply turned up. Large groups of young people would head out, immediately recognisable in their blue and white, chatting, laughing, and training without knowing it. Running was fun and, while they put in the miles, the chat wasn’t about lap times, performance aids or supplements but about music and television, celebrities and pop stars. There were joggers and jokers, and ordinary club runners like me, but some went on to achieve greatness, winning national championships, setting city marathon records, finding track success, posting times that few present-day local runners come near.
That club, “Belfast Olympic” is one of the great forgotten success stories of a bleak time in Northern Ireland. I never knew the history of the club, nor who thought of the club name, but what those visionaries created was extraordinary in those very difficult times in west Belfast. Years passed, the club dispersed and was subsumed into another, but throughout my time as a general practitioner, I would meet patients - old friends - who had been involved in organising, coaching or had run for “Olympic”. Many are still involved with different clubs around the city helping develop future generations and I often see them track-side on summer evenings.
There will be no runners from Belfast Olympic in Rio but we gathered last Thursday evening to celebrate the next best thing. Two old friends and original club members had coached an athlete who about to head off to next week’s Games and we met in a small café on the outskirts of west Belfast to wish her well. People in T-shirts and shorts about to go training, suits and skirts on their way home from work, mothers and toddlers, grannies and granddads, and athletes of all ages gathered for coffee and cake, a few speeches. And photographs.
“Olympic legends!” joked one wag at the back as some older guys stood for a photo. And, as old friends chatted about the past, I thought back to Belfast Olympic, and remembered those streams of young people running through west Belfast during the darkest days of our history, in parts of the city that most people only recognised from news bulletins, and I quietly applauded the vision of those who created “Olympic”, and their legacy.