Irish Olympian Rhys McClenaghan has been barred from defending his gymnastics title at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in a shock ruling by the sport’s international ruling body.
The 22-year-old from Newtownards and two Northern Ireland team-mates have been told they are ineligible to compete in the event later this year because they routinely represent Ireland in worldwide Federation Internationale de Gymnastique (FIG) competitions.
McClenaghan, who pipped Max Whitlock to pommel gold on the Gold Coast i Australia four years ago, said on social media: “Earlier today I was informed that the [FIG] will not be allowing myself and my team-mates to compete at the Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland.
“I was born in Northern Ireland, my residence is in Northern Ireland and I represented and won gold for Northern Ireland in the last Commonwealth Games.
“I feel that FIG do not understand the gravity of the Belfast Agreement and the unique situation pertaining to Northern Ireland.
“Every other sport understand the eligibility of Northern Irish athletes in accordance with Commonwealth Games.
“I would like to ask the FIG to reconsider their decision and allow us to compete at the Commonwealth Games.”
Gymnasts have represented Northern Ireland at every Commonwealth Games going back to Auckland in 1990. Gymnasts from other UK nations are unaffected because they hold Great Britain licences.
Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland issued a strongly-worded statement, accusing the FIG of having “completely disregarded” the Good Friday Agreement and the organisation is considering legal recourse to overturn the ruling.
“Historically, TeamNI at all Commonwealth Games has included athletes across a range of sports who have chosen to represent either IRL or GBR at European Championships, World Championships and Olympic Games,” read the statement.
“We even have athletes within the same sport who have chosen different international performance pathways.
“This has always been respected and adds to the inclusive nature of TeamNI at Commonwealth Games.
“The FIG appear to have completely disregarded the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the unique situation pertaining to Northern Ireland. They are out of step with all of our other member sports.”
With Whitlock electing to miss Birmingham, McClenaghan would have been overwhelming favourite to defend his pommel title. Fellow Northern Ireland athletes Eamon Montgomery and Ewan McAteer have also qualified for the games.
The Commonwealth Games Federation indicated that it had done everything in its powers to convince the FIG to change its decision, which is understood to be the first time such an issue has arisen.
A CGF spokesman said: “We fully appreciate the complex and sensitive nature of this matter and have done everything we can to find a solution, including facilitating urgent consideration by the FIG Executive Committee.
“As an athlete-centred organisation, we share the disappointment of the affected athletes and gymnastics fans and are in discussions with Commonwealth Games Northern Ireland regarding the immediate implications and appropriate next steps.”
The FIG was not immediately available for comment.