Legendary cyclist Stephen Roche yesterday said people should “focus on the sport” and “forget about flags and religion” when the Giro d’Italia comes to Ulster in May.
Mr Roche spoke to the News Letter after he was inducted into the Giro d’Italia Hall of Fame amid massive Italian and local media coverage at a special ceremony at the Giant’s Causeway.
The acclaimed cyclist – who was one of only two riders to win professional cycling’s Triple Crown by winning the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and World Championships in 1987 – told of how being honoured “made him very, very proud”.
When asked about recent calls by Alliance MLA Anna Lo for flags and paramilitary murals to be removed from the route of the race, Mr Roche insisted that people need to focus on the “sport”.
He said: “I think people should forget about them [flags and emblems]. This is sport. And the most important thing is that it gets people on the street. It is all positive.”
He added that the race “will see people coming over to see this great country we have here”.
“The most important thing here is the great sporting event. Forget about flags and religion because this is a sporting event that will unite everybody. It is a family event and not about a flag. I know that is difficult to do sometimes maybe, but this is a sporting event.
“It does not matter who you are or what you believe in. We all admire Bradley Wiggins, we all admire Pele and George Best, so let’s keep it a sporting event.”
Alan Clarke, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, said the Giro d’Italia “is a huge event, probably one of the biggest Northern Ireland has ever staged”.
“This will be streamed around the world to 170 countries.
“If I had the choice today to take the Giro or the Tour de France I would take the Giro because it is about youth, style and fashion and is more on the up, just like Northern Ireland in terms of tourism.
“People here don’t seem to realise how big an event this is on the world stage. For us it is another step on the ladder of showcasing Northern Ireland around the world. We expect 140,000 visitors to Northern Ireland, 40,000 from out of state.”
Speaking at the event, Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster, said: “As Northern Ireland embraces the pink of the leader’s jersey, there is no doubt this event will be a significant boost for tourism across the board.”
She added that it will boost the local economy.