NIVAA – the birth & the 70’s

Probably the first race to be held in Northern Ireland that was solely for veterans was a cross-country race at Ballyclare in 1971 under the auspices of Jimmy Todd and Johnston Scott at East Antrim harriers. Then in August 1973 at the Bangor Road Races at Castle Park the idea of forming a veteran’s association was born.

The founder members were Eddie Johnston and Joe Kennedy of Duncairn Nomads and Eddie McAvoy, Billy Thompson, Johnston Foy, Norman Skelton and Ernie Beck of North Belfast Harriers. It was decided to call the association the Northern Ireland Veteran Athletes Association, a name that has survived to the present time. Within a month the NIVAA had become affiliated to the British Veteran Athletes Association and the first officers elected, these were Eddie McAvoy – Chairman, Eddie Johnston – Secretary and Ernie Beck – Treasurer. Ernie (Johnston) as secretary in the early 80’s and also put in 20 years continuous service.

Thanks to the hard work of the secretary, who had started corresponding with other veterans in America and Canada, plans were drawn up to send a team to the inaugural World T&F Championships in Toronto in 1975. Here they competed against 1400 other veterans who’s ages ranged from 40 to 92, the oldest being a Scottish sprinter called Duncan McLean who at 92 was better known as the “Tartan Flash”.Within four years the membership has grown to over 50 as many athletes who thought they were ‘done’ rediscovered the enjoyment of being fit and able to compete on a level playing field with their peers. By this time no cross-country or road event was complete without a race for veterans. In August 1977 a party of eighteen Northern Ireland veterans went to the second World ‘Masters’ T&F Championships in Gotenburg, Sweden. (Note that the name was later changed to ‘Veterans’ and there is now an ongoing debate about changing back to ‘Masters’ as the name veteran in USA has a completely different connotation).

While the team did not bring home any medals Roy Kernoghan, Duncairn Nomads, ran exceptionally well to finish sixth in the M40 10,000 meter cross-country and the NIVAA team which included Johnston Foy, Ernie Beck, Billy Thompson and Norman Skelton, all North Belfast Harriers, finished fourth team in their category just missing out on a bronze medal. Roy Kernoghan also finished sixteenth in the marathon, Jimmy Nesbitt, Ulsterville, was sixth in his category in the discus, Jimmy Toff, East Antrim Harriers, was sixth in the pentathlon. Interest in veteran athletics was booming throughout the world as is evidence by the 4000 competitors in Gotenburg compared to the 1500 in Toronto.

Some top class athletes were now prolonging their careers and competing in veteran athletics one of the most famous being Al Oerter of the USA who had won four Olympic gold medals at the discus and who competed in Gotenburg. As we reached the end of the 70’s veteran athletics in Northern Ireland continued to develop and flourish.

Contributed by Ernie Beck