CRAIGAVON council member Ronnie Harkness and his wife Lesley combined two great passions in their lives with a trip to the battlefields of Europe and a taste of the Olympics in London.
It all crystallised in a magic moment at the war memorial Menin Gate in France, where they met legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Mercyx, who won the Tour de France no fewer than five times - in 1969-72 and in 1974.
Said Ronnie, “The Belgian cycling team were on their way to the Olympics and had stopped at The Gate. They told me that Mercyx was going with them as a supporters and talisman, and it was very moving when he laid a wreath in honour of all Olympians who had fallen in the wars. We met him and had a chat with him. It was a wonderful experience.”
Ronnie and Lesley visited a number of battlefields at the Somme and Flanders over five days, as they have done often in the past and have a deep knowledge of local men who perished in 1914-18 and 1939-45. Afterwards, they travelled to London to take in the atmosphere of the Olympics and attend some of the events.
Said Ronnie, “Lesley was attending her third Olympics, having visited Montreal in 1976 and Barcelona 1992 with her late husband Les Jones, the former Team GB athletics team manager. It was my first experience of the global event and I was especially impressed by the thousands of volunteers who were responsible for ensuring that everyone reached their respective venues with the minimum of fuss.
“At Wimbledon tube station we met former Portadown Hockey Club member and volunteer Lyn Irwin, standing in the torrential rain showing the huge crowds where to board the shuttle buses for the tennis matches.”
Said Lesley, “For a time, we thought we might not see any play at Wimbledon due to the weather, but thankfully it cleared up and we watched the bronze medal play-off between Del Potro (Argentina) and Djokovic (Serbia), We then moved to The Hill, where it was standing room only, to see Andy Murray’s final set in the gold medal game against Roger Federer. As you can imagine the place went wild.”
The previous day Ronnie and Lesley visited Wembley to watch Mexico play Senegal at football. Said Ronnie, a Glenavon fan, “It was a great game and only two defensive howlers by Senegal in extra time deprived them of glory. Little did we realise at the time that Mexico would run out gold medal winners. Almost 76,000 spectators were present but the splendid organisation meant we were able to take a gentle stroll with the minimum of fuss to catch the tube.”
The final Olympic event for Lesley and Ronnie was at Riverside Arena within the magnificent Olympic Park to watch Germany play Japan at ladies hockey - both of them have played for the Portadown club. “The Germans were magnificent with two of their all time greats, Franziska Hentschel and Natascha Keller, making their farewell appearances,” they commented.
Lesley and Ronnie agreed that it was wonderful to experience the huge support for Team GB - “it was uplifting and without a doubt played a huge part in the success of Team GB, with their great haul of medals”.
Said Ronnie, “Each volunteer received a relay baton with an inscribed scroll thanking them for their services. It was a deserved gesture. Their contribution was immense and it will be difficult task for Rio in Brazil to emulate the efficiency, style and commitment of the London Games.”
He added that the pre-Olympics project of carrying the torch throughout the UK played a major role of getting the entire country involved in The Games. “That was a master stroke,” he said.