After a three-and-a-half year wait, Panathlon finally held its first ever competition in Northern Ireland this week as 69 pupils gathered for a 10-pin bowling event in Belfast.

Children with disabilities and special needs from schools in Belfast, Cookstown, Banbridge and Downpatrick got the rare opportunity to represent their schools in sporting competition – and feedback and follow-up discussions have already opened up possibilities for more events in the near future.

Panathlon’s growth into Northern Ireland had originally been scheduled for April 2020, with competitions planned in Craigavon and Belfast, but Covid intervened. Whilst restrictions prevented pupils mixing externally, Panathlon continued to engage with the schools and many took part in our virtual programme, running inclusive activity in-school with existing PE equipment.

Once Covid restrictions were relaxed, Panathlon kept in touch with the schools in the hope of rearranging the original inter-school competition. The 2022/23 academic year was deemed too soon, but Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer Tony Waymouth visited Belfast in May this year to assess potential venues and agree timings with all schools.

The winning team from Mitchell House School

Tony also spoke with Siobhan Larkin from the Belfast office of Panathlon’s long-time supporters, St. James’s Place, to discuss the opportunity for their staff to volunteer and officiate at events.

This week’s 10-pin bowling event finally saw all the planning pay off – and it’s set to be just the beginning of Panathlon’s provision of competitive sporting activity across the country.

A Panathlon Xtend competition is now set for 4 March at Queen’s University in Belfast with staff from the Belfast office of our long-time supporters St. James’s Place attending as volunteers.

At our debut 10-pin event, Dave Kennedy was a teacher at the winning team, Mitchell House, and also an advisor on disability and inclusion to mainstream schools across Belfast. He was elated to finally witness Panathlon live in the city.

He said: “Disability Northern Ireland have put on a boccia and kurling festivals since Covid, but
outside of these, opportunities are limited. Developing Panathlon in Northern Ireland will enable a wider range of choice. There is also massive potential for mainstream SEN participation across the city.

“Through my head teacher, I will now provide positive feedback to the special schools head teachers’ network about the raft of event opportunities Panathlon can provide.”

Sara Liddell, principal at Knockevin School in Downpatrick, has maintained consistent dialogue with Panathlon ever since the original mooted event in 2020. Knockevin brought teams from several different year groups to this week’s 10-pin competition.

“Pupils from Knockevin had the best day ever at their very first bowling competition! They absolutely loved getting out of school and competing along with other schools. The pupils didn’t really mind who won as long as they beat the staff! They were delighted with their medals and had a great day out.”

Teacher Eimear Malone from Knockevin added: “I always have a different class each year so it was a first for some pupils to go out and represent the school. Our first experience of Panathlon was excellent, and it was so well planned and organised. We loved interacting with other schools and the children are on a high back at school with the medals and certificates.”

For some competitors from Cookstown High School, 40 miles outside of Belfast, the Panathlon was the first time they had ever visited the capital city.

Jonathan Hastings, teacher at Cookstown, said events for pupils with special needs were limited other than NI Disability sport festivals, so this opportunity was invaluable. “I see Panathlon as a vehicle for bringing people together across the country as well as providing experiences to finally represent their school,” he said.

Special guest Siobhan Larkin from St. James’s Place said: “The children and young people loved the event, there was a wonderful sense of fun, enthusiasm and also a fair amount of friendly competition amongst the teams! The children’s smiles and laughter were a tonic.

“The kids were delighted to receive their medals, regardless of the colour. Belfast SJP staff members will look forward to being involved as event officials at future events.”

Tony Waymouth, Panathlon’s Chief Operating Officer, said: “It has taken a while due to circumstances beyond all of our control, but we have got there – and this is only the start!

“The potential is there to provide opportunities beyond the traditional disability sports and I thank those who maintained contact over the pandemic and pushed for an event to occur when we all felt it was right. It has been a great success and I look forward to increasing the profile of Panathlon in Northern Ireland.”