SUPPORT FOR BANNED GYMNASTS

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IRISH swimmer Jack McMillan and Team GB legend Bethany Firth are united in their support for Northern Ireland’s banned gymnasts. Both McMillan and Firth will represent Northern Ireland at this year’s Commonwealth Games, despite competing for different teams at last year’s Tokyo Games. Two weeks ago, the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique banned Northern Irish gymnasts Ewan McAteer, Rhys McClenaghan and Eamon Montgomery from competing at Birmingham 2022 as they had previously represented Ireland. Paralympic champion Firth – a personal friend of Newtownards gymnasts McClenaghan – is baffled by the FIG’s actions. She said: “I fully support Rhys. He is my friend, and a really lovely guy. He is also one of the best gymnasts in the world, so I was so gutted for him when I heard the news. “I’m going to be honest and say, I don’t really understand the reasons for it. Politics is a bit of mystery to me, but it doesn’t seem fair at all. “I think the Northern Ireland team at the Commonwealth Games is super special because there’s people from Team GB and people from Team Ireland coming together to represent Northern Ireland. I think that’s really cool. “Hopefully the gymnastics association change their mind because Rhys and the two other lads deserve the chance to go to the Commonwealths.” Firth – who represented Ireland at London 2012, but Team GB at Rio 2016 and last year’s Tokyo Paralympics – takes great pride in representing Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games. The Ards Swimming Club member said: “As everyone knows, I normally represent Team GB but I’m also very proud to be Northern Irish. I grew up in Northern Ireland and it means a lot to me, because the people of Northern Ireland have always supported me. “To have Northern Ireland written on my cap will mean the world to me, so I’m very excited and very proud to be part of this team.” Bangor Swimming Club star Jack McMillan is also dismayed by the FIG’s decision. McMillan will swim for Northern Ireland in Birmingham in July and then represent Ireland at the European Championships in Rome in August. He said: “It seems ridiculous considering he competed for Northern Ireland four years ago and won a gold. “I honestly don’t know what the gymnastics federation are thinking. Like Rhys, I represented Ireland at the Olympics and now I’m preparing to represent Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games. There’s no problem in swimming, so I don’t see why there should be a problem in gymnastics. It should be the same for all Commonwealth sports. “Hopefully it’s reversed in time for Rhys, Eamon and Ewan to travel to Birmingham.” McAteer, McClenaghan and Montgomery are eagerly awaiting the result of negotiations between FIG and Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland. CGNI remain hopeful the global governing body will change their mind. Earlier this week, former Rathgael Gymnastics man McClenaghan said: “The news came as a real shock. It was a shock as I am reigning Commonwealth Games champion on the pommel, and I represented Northern Ireland on the Gold Coast four years ago. “And now this time, the FIG are telling me I’m not allowed to compete. Nothing has changed on my part, but the gymnastics federation has clearly changed their mind. “Northern Ireland is a unique situation, so I can understand why they have misunderstood things. Based on the Belfast Agreement, I should be allowed to represent Northern Ireland. They think I’m switching nationalities, which isn’t right. “I just hope the FIG come to the right decision and overturn their previous decision and allow us gymnasts born in Northern Ireland to represent Northern Ireland. “It’s been a challenging couple of weeks for me, but I’m continuing to train. I want to get the opportunity to retain my title. If I’m allowed to compete, I’ll be ready.