What (or rather who) do the Ulster Amateur Boxing Championship, the Walled City Marathon, the GAA World Congress and the Foyle Cup have in common?
Answer: Gareth Stewart.
The name will not be as familiar to Derry’s sporting community as it should be but Gareth is the man behind the City of Culture Sports Programme. Actually, Gareth is the man behind the men behind the 2013 Sports Programme, if you follow.
“My role is basically facilitating the different sporting groups and organisations,” explains Gareth, “Most were not used to dealing with funding requests etc. so we were able to help with application forms and deal with administration. We took them through those processes and made it as clear as possible.
“I’ve been lucky in that the sporting organisations within Derry City are of such a high and committed standard that they are working as hard as we are. Take the marathon; You have the likes of Noel McMonagle, Scott Galbraith and Gerry Lynch who bring a lifetime of expertise. These boys (and every sport in Derry has these type of figures, like Michael Hutton with the Foyle Cup) gave up every free minute they had for the last six months to make their event a success. No-one sees that but they were able to pull off an amazing event that will probably run and run.
“They are the unsung heroes of the City of Culture sports programme. They put their lives on hold, gave up nights and all to make sure their sport gets its day in the spotlight.”
So, what then is the role of the Culture Company in bringing sport to the 2013 Year of Culture?
“What we did was try to put on events that normally wouldn’t happen as well as taking those that do and help the organisers improve them. Okay, so events like the Foyle Cup would happen regardless but what our funding has enabled them to do is invite more teams and create new competitions for example. We have tried to help those events take it up a level.
“We wanted to shine a light on events that wouldn’t otherwise be in the spotlight. The year started with the superb Ulster Amateur Boxing Championships for example. Well, we have a fantastic local boxing community but maybe they aren’t always the best at showcasing themselves but we can help in that regard.”
The 39-year old is no stranger to event organising and remains a focal point of the annual Gasyard Féile as well as the Celtronic Musical Festival. He admits his sporting background is largely confined to spectating but says he’s happy to take a back seat to the city’s superb sporting clubs.
“We started in September 2011 with plenty of ideas but there was very little in terms of sport. It’s now difficult to imagine the year without some of the impressive sporting events but when things started it was different. I heard murmurings the sports community were, understandably, unhappy at that. We called a consultation meeting in the Forum and over 150 groups attended. What came through from that was the overwhelming desire of the sports community in Derry to get involved.
“What I was able to do after the meeting in the Forum was make a very good argument for the pot of funding going to Sport. We were able to secure £210,000. From that we levered a sports programme which is worth £650,000 which is massive. That’s what the programme will cost to put on. We put that £210,000 toward it with events like the marathon able to generate revenue through entry fees, sponsorship etc. We tried to reflect the sporting culture of Derry and I don’t think any sport has been left out.”
Initial scepticism at the programme has given way to optimism that, from a sporting perspective, the 2013 programme could have some real long-term benefits for the city and its sporting community. It’s all about that buzz word - Legacy.
“I would hope there will be more people involved in sport and I think that’s a given. That goes for every level. If kids see these things happening and I think, ‘I want to run’, I want to box’ or ‘I want to play football’ that’s an important legacy.
“A healthier city would be another fantastic legacy to leave. I don’t think there is anyone doing surveys but within that 25-40 bracket - during which time so many people tend to move away from sport - this year has given people a real boost and brought them back.
“Another part of the legacy is showing Derry as a great sporting arena. If you look at this week’s criterium, Derry as a venue for sporting events is superb. The walls can be used, the river, the streets - hopefully more people will take a look at that and see what a success Derry can be. Derry and its landscape have shown itself to be a great venue to hold events.”
Gareth pinpoints the Walled City Marathon as his highlight so far and admits the city’s appetite for sport makes it vital the impact of events are felt long after December 31st.
“What we have noticed is by supporting the sporting organisations in the city, those organisation then have the confidence to go forward and pull down funding themselves. The likes of the triathlon club were able to go and get money which they probably never had before. We have tried to give groups the ability to go and secure their own events after 2013 and I think there are many of them who will be able to.”
With a 24/7 working schedule that has no respect for the normal nine to five, Gareth admits his two and a half years with City of Culture have been challenging but says it was a once in a lifetime opportunity he had to take. It has, he claims, enabled him to play an important role in something which he believes will have a positive influence within sporting circles and further afield for generations to come.
So how does he sum up the experience?
“Sleep deprivation on a massive scale but rewarding on every level,” he laughs, “It is brought me into contact with people I never knew and helped forged new friendships. This is nothing to do with the sporting side of things but it highlights what I mean. I am 39 years old and for 38 years of my life I had never been in the Fountain. This job has enabled me to change that and now I know loads of people in the Fountain, I know lots of people in places like Nelson Drive, in Irish Street. That’s the wider legacy. That is happening within the whole programme, not just sport. There are invisible barriers getting broken down and that might be the biggest legacy this year gives us.”