Golden Olympic dreams of Northern Ireland athletes at Rio

Boxer Paddy Barnes will be hoping to improve on the bronze medals he won in 2008 and 2012
Boxer Paddy Barnes will be hoping to improve on the bronze medals he won in 2008 and 2012

Athletes from Northern Ireland are well placed to get among the medals when the Olympic Games get under way in Brazil this weekend.

Representing both Team Ireland and Team GB, a total of 29 local competitors are in Rio for what is widely regarded as the greatest sporting event on earth.

Northern Ireland's last Olympic gold medalists Jimmy Kirkwood (left) and Stephen Martin, who were part of the GB hockey squad at the 1988 Seoul Olympics

Northern Ireland's last Olympic gold medalists Jimmy Kirkwood (left) and Stephen Martin, who were part of the GB hockey squad at the 1988 Seoul Olympics

Rowers Alan Campbell and the Chambers brothers, Richard and Peter, are already decorated Olympians and have every chance of adding to their medal collection over the next fortnight.

Campbell is taking part in his fourth Games for Great Britain, having previously competed in Athens, Beijing and London – winning bronze in the single sculls at London 2012.

The Chambers brothers won silver medals at the London Games in the lightweight fours.

Northern Ireland’s last gold medals were won by Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood as members of the GB hockey squad that triumphed at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

Rower Alan Campbell won bronze at the London Olympics in 2012

Rower Alan Campbell won bronze at the London Olympics in 2012

Rory McIlroy would have been among the favourites to win a gold with golf making a reappearance at the Games in Rio, however, the Holywood man withdrew over concerns about the spread of the Zika virus.

The opening ceremony takes place at midnight on Friday, with Brazil four hours behind current UK time.

Belfast boxer Paddy Barnes will carry the flag for Team Ireland while Andy Murray has been chosen as the flagbearer for Team GB at the opening ceremony.

Barnes is one of Team Ireland’s great medal hopes, along with his fellow Belfast boxer Michael Conlon. Barnes competed at Beijing in 2008 and came home with a bronze, and both won bronze medals at London 2012.

Tennis player Andy Murray will carry the flag for the Great Britain team at the opening ceremony

Tennis player Andy Murray will carry the flag for the Great Britain team at the opening ceremony

Four members of Lisnagarvey hockey club will be travelling as part of the Team Ireland squad – including Paul Gleghorne who could find himself up against his brother Mark Gleghorne of Team GB should both nations get out of the group stages.

Garvey captain Jonny Bell described his selection as a “massive privilege” and said the Olympic Games is the “pinnacle” of a hockey player’s career.

Portaferry’s Ciara Mageean, who won silver in both the European and world junior championships will compete in the women’s 1500m.

Long distance runner Breege Connolly from Belfast has been selected for the women’s marathon following a world-class run at the London marathon last year.

American Tori Pena has qualified to represent Team Ireland through her grandmother who came from Co Londonderry. The Californian athlete is competing in the pole vault.

Stormont’s Sports Minister Paul Givan said the Games will inspire more people to partipate in sporting activities.

Speaking following a visit to Performance Development Centre in Lisburn where he met Paralympic swimmer Bethany Firth, Mr Givan said: “Seeing Bethany train today makes you appreciate the effort that these young men and women put into their training when preparing for competitions. To qualify to represent your country at the Olympics or Paralympics is a fantastic achievement.”

Mr Givan added: “Sport has a positive impact on our lives, both physically and mentally, so I am particularly pleased that we have such great role models and ambassadors to encourage young people to participate.”

NIO minister Kris Hopkins MP has also sent his best wishes to the athletes.

“Whether you are competing for Team GB & NI, or Team Ireland, you can be sure that the people of Northern Ireland will be cheering you on, and urging you to go for gold. Northern Ireland has always been big on sporting talent, and I have no doubt that over the course of the next few weeks we will see many sporting triumphs which we can all celebrate,” he said.

Armchair fans can get closer to the action with a new BBC Sport 360 degree video experience being rolled out for the first time.

The trial app was made available from Thursday on Android, iOS and Samsung Gear VR. Coverage will also be available online through BBC Taster allowing people to try, and rate, the experimental service.