Friday, 30 August 2013

An Exercise in Volunteering

Olympian inspiration

Exercise is a celebration of life and health.
Sport, both professional and amateur, stirs the emotions and has an almost miraculous ability to bring people together as rivals compete, helping to bridge national and political differences.

At last year’s Olympics, Londoners were said by many commentators to have rediscovered the spirit of the blitz, a sense of community.  People worked together in pursuit of a common objective.   
Much of the credit for the success of the Games was attributed to the volunteers who gave up their time to help the professionals to deliver a legacy for the capital city and for the whole of the UK.

Participating is all

For ten days in August this year Belfast basked in a warm summer glow as people from over 60 nations, emergency services workers for whom exercising is a hobby, competed in a global sporting extravaganza, the World Police and Fire Games.  
These part-time athletes reminded us of the true spirit of amateur sport, the Corinthian ideals of participating for the fun of it.

Featuring 56 sports and using 41 different venues, all sorts of events were on display.  Some were conventional sports like cycling, track and field, rugby 7s, ice hockey, and beach volleyball.  Others were unheard-of to those of us who are outside the emergency services, but they sounded too good to miss.

Who would not be tempted to go and see the Ultimate Fire-fighter event or the Toughest Competitor Alive competition?  How could we uninitiated not be curious to learn more about the Stair Race, an event where fire-fighters in full gear and wearing breathing apparatus would race up the city’s tallest building with its 550 steps and 27 flights of stairs?


This was the first time that these Games had been staged anywhere in the UK or Ireland.  Winning the right to stage them was a big deal for Belfast, a small regional city rather than a metropolis.  New York was the most recent host city for this biennial jamboree and Belfast wanted them to be the “friendliest games ever.”

Substantial effort was committed to ensuring that this would be no idle boast as public and private sectors pooled expertise.  The prize would be the projection of a positive image of Northern Ireland, somewhere that is hospitable and open for business, a place that looks outward.

Organisers fittingly followed the success of the London Olympics and recruited an army of volunteers to help deliver the Games, giving local citizens the chance to welcome an anticipated 7,000 foreign athletes together with their friends and families.

For too long, tourists ignored Northern Ireland, deterred by images of hatred.   
What a potential boost for our self-confidence and a golden opportunity to express our civic pride.   To do so by welcoming visitors who would probably not have considered coming here otherwise and showing them that we have plenty to offer.

We want our city to be the best place it can be – elegant, peaceful, creative and positive, rather than a place riven with intolerance.  
Here was a chance to make a statement.

Team 2013

Encouraged by advance publicity and by friends who planned to do likewise, my wife and I applied to join Team 2013 as volunteers.   
To sound compatible, I selected six or seven venues close to my home as suitable and listed my experience and knowledge of athletics and cycling.  Interviews were held last January, giving me the opportunity to restate my preferences.

Buoyed up by the thoroughness of the selection process and the volume of public interest (judging by the long queues of interviewees), we were both delighted when our applications were accepted.  We would be advised in due course about our roles.

Five and a half weeks before the start of the Games, we were invited to a huge event in the cavernous Kings Hall – noted for hosting massive events like the recent Bruce Springsteen rock concert, professional boxing (such as the Barry McGuigan fights) and, until last year, the region’s biggest agricultural and gymkhana event.   
We were told that 3,500 attended for a full day of what the organisers described as “orientation training.”  
Our first impressions were that the Games organisers are making an impressive effort to inform and train us for the task ahead. No expense seemed to be spared as two well-known local comedians, backed up by key figures from the organising committee emphasised the key message of friendliness.   

I have to say that I felt a bit disoriented as the message was repeated, loudly, over and over again.  The entertainers in particular tried to whip up the audience into a state of manic euphoria, as if we were appearing on one of those American-styled reality TV shows. 
Frenzy, however, is not our style. People here are naturally friendly, céad míle fáilte is engrained in our DNA, faking friendship is not who we are. 
We are of an inquisitive nature, nosey perhaps. But surely this curiosity in our style of welcoming large numbers of foreign visitors is an understandable trait when we have been deprived of the pleasure of their company for too long.


One day I was making friends with four Milanese competitors who were planning to go sight-seeing during the remainder of their visit when a fellow volunteer, who had overheard our conversation, joined us.   
Within no time at all, my colleague had offered our Italian visitors the use of his holiday home for the three days after the competition as a base for their trip to Bushmills and the Giants Causeway.  This spontaneous offer was accepted, almost in a state of disbelief.
My new pal Francesco emailed me after a few days to say they were having a great time and thanks for our kindness, grazie mille.

I overheard a conversation between an athlete and a volunteer one day at lunch.  The visitor, who was staggered by the unexpectedly amicable reception, was jokingly exclaiming that he could not understand how we could be friendly, given all the shocking images he sees of us fighting and rioting.

Another volunteer told me that he heard an American fire-fighter phoning his wife in New York to tell her how good it is in Belfast and that she had to take the next flight over to join him for a holiday.

These and other examples of normal hospitable behaviour happened despite and not as a result of aggressive commands to be friendly.

Turn judge

I was assigned to the new Aurora 50 metre aquatic centre in Bangor as a member of the field of play team, on the 8 am to 1 pm shift for each of the three days of swimming competition.   

My first thought was that this does not, as the organisers’ insisted, take account of my skills and preferences.  It was also a less convenient location.

However, when I resigned myself to accepting the event and venue, I was glad I did so.  
It introduced me to a new and luxurious venue for sport, Northern Ireland’s first and only Olympic-sized swimming pool.  
It also enabled me to observe how officials (who are also unpaid volunteers and do so all year round) in a sport unfamiliar to me go about being efficient and meticulous.

The Games organisers discouraged volunteers from using private transport.  
Being of like mind and not wanting to drive to the events, I decided to cycle to Bangor.  
The disadvantage of so doing was that it added over two hours to my 5 hour shift.  

The advantage was that it was a means for me to combat the interruption caused to my own training for a cycling sportive a few weeks after the end of the Games.
According to my mobile phone app, Endomondo, I burned approximately 1,800 calories on the 34 mile daily cycling trip.  
An exercise in volunteering in deed.

I have to add that it felt slightly surreal rising at 6 am on a Saturday and more especially on a Sunday morning to cycle to work.  It certainly shook me out of my comfort zone.  Sure isn't that not half the joy of retirement - getting a right good shake.
Such was the camaraderie and spectacle that it was no ordeal at all.  On the contrary, and in retrospect, being one of the team was and will be one of my personal highlights of the year.  
I would do it all again.

Allow me to illustrate the craic of the swimming competition with some random observations.

  • ·         My award for pathos goes to an English swimmer who after winning her event in the 70 to 75 age category was disqualified because she was wearing tape adhesive on her right leg.  I spoke to her afterwards when she explained that a physiotherapist had applied the tape to her stiff calf muscle as protection.  This was because she was due to compete in the half-marathon a couple of days later.  An official told me that swimming is the only sport which bans the use of this tape.

  • ·         My prize for the swimmer with the most appropriate surname goes to the Canadian fire chief Mathieu Poisson.  He even swam like one.

  • ·         The more elderly swimmers could teach us younger pensioners a lesson or two.  I could not help but notice that some appeared to walk from the changing room all the way up to their starting position with an awkward gait, suggesting that perambulation must be painful.  It was, therefore, wonderful to see how fluently and quickly these same senior citizens could navigate their way up and down the gigantic pool.

  • ·         I spoke to an Australian competitor after his event and he told me he was 78.  When I asked him if that was his Games over, he retorted with a smile telling me that he had four more races to do.

  • ·         The longest event in the pool is the 1500 metres.  As a tribute to the spirit of the Games, the spectators reserved the most emphatic cheer for the final finisher despite the big time gap.  A friend told me that the same crowd reaction happened in the long distance events on the track.

  • ·         The choice of music at the Aquatic Centre to introduce the medal ceremonies was apt.  A few bars of the American composer Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare to the Common Man” encapsulated the fact that our visitors are everyday people, paid from the public purse and who compete as a diversion from their dangerous work serving to rescue and protect the general public.  It’s humbling to do a little to return the favours they do for us.

  • ·         A few of the volunteers I met at the swimming events had come from England, having been volunteers at last year’s London Olympics.

  • ·         It is impossible to be unimpressed by the constant effervescence of Dame Mary Peters, our gold medallist in the pentathlon at the Munich Olympics in 1972.  She was a key member of the team which won the bid to stage the event and was, in many ways, the face of the Games.  Her bonhomie, both on and off camera, as she presented medals at the swimming (and other) events shows that natural charm works.

  • ·         It was gratifying to see supporters in the galleries displaying their identity multi-nationally.  Flags of Australia, Brazil, Catalonia, Ireland and Japan waved in fierce but friendly rivalry alongside the Union Jack.  No riots, no defiance, no hatred, only the pure joy of sport.  The happy face of a cosmopolitan Northern Ireland on public view.

  • ·         On the issue of public viewing, I did not expect that the photographers at work during the Games were volunteers – most of whom, as one informed me, are members of camera clubs.  To quote the Games organisers:

“There are loads of photos (taken by our TEAM 2013 Photography Team) on the 2013 WPFG website of the sportsmen and our TEAM 2013 volunteers in action.  To view these amazing photos please go to

Spanish swimmer Motero Suare executing a tumble turn in the 1500 metre mens freestyle final at the World Police and Fire Games in the Aurora Centre, Bangor Co Down on Saturday 3 August 2013.  (Photo: Stephen Weatherall).


I was on home ground when, two days after finishing my aquatic shifts, I helped my athletics club organise the cross country running 5 and 10 kilometre races at Stormont.   
My thoughts about this event were the same as those about ice-hockey – it seems a bit strange having winter sports take place at the height of summer.  But so what?

The athletes turned out in large numbers, the front runners performed to a very high standard, and it was heart-warming to see so many countries represented in a true sporting test against the clock.   
Only one discordant thought came to mind.  That was the apparent absence of African athletes from an event which they dominate in other circumstances.

A propos absences, it would be interesting to find out if there was indeed any representation from the African continent at these Games.

And from the hosts’ perspective, it would be interesting to know what impact, if any, rioting may have had on representation.  I was told that the cricket competition was reduced as fewer teams registered than expected.

Best attendance

The candidate for most successful sport at the Games is the ice hockey.  
Apparently 55,000 spectators watched the games staged at the Odyssey Arena, the home of the professional team Belfast Giants.  
At a pre-season friendly (Sept 1 2013) when Bolzano Foxes (a top Italian team from the north of that country) played the Giants, the audience was told this important fact.  

By the way the Giants won 2-1,  securing victory 30 seconds into extra time.  
WPFG volunteers were given free entry to the Bolzano fixture as a thank you from the sponsoring Government Department (DCAL) - something that was much appreciated by those volunteers who attended a very exciting match. 


On reading the Games committee’s advance publicity about recruiting voluntary helpers, my impression was that I would have to work on every one of the 10 days of competition.  
Being somewhat tired after four days on duty, it was a relief to have time off.

Such was the infectious atmosphere of goodwill at the Games that the idea of attending as a spectator was appealing.  I joined my wife and a friend who wanted to watch the Ultimate Fire Fighter competition.  On a lazy sunny morning, this was the perfect antidote to dazed exhaustion.

The venue was the Titanic slipways, next to the imposing new visitor centre.   
Watching super-fit fire fighters from all corners of world sprinting with heavy hoses on a level playing field, newly surfaced with contemporary paving, racing up and down temporary scaffolding carrying chainsaws and incurring 5 second time-penalties for missing a step was a spectacle to enthral.

The best free show in town and the crowds loved its uniqueness.  
 “One of the most coveted titles in the Games,” wrote the Belfast Telegraph, and no wonder.  Imagine the kudos and bragging rights the Ultimate Fire Fighter would have on returning to work.

On another day, I attended the events taking place at the extensive and modernised playing fields of Queens University.  I saw the finals of the rugby 7s and also the Gaelic football 7s.
Male teams and also female teams were in feverish and intensive action.  
The boisterous spectators only became respectfully quiet at those matches when the New Zealand fire and rescue rugby team performed the haka.  They beat the otherwise invincible metropolitan police team in a thrilling final.

I found myself sitting beside a lieutenant in the FDNY, New York Fire Department, during the rugby 7s finals.   
Throughout he was jovial and extremely knowledgeable about rugby which – to my surprise – is a popular sport in the Big Apple.
As a change of subject from the sport, I asked him as discreetly as I could if he had lost any colleagues in the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.  Fortunately nobody from his squad died.  When he continued, however, recounting details about the loss of his Irish-American best friend Terence McShane, it was moving to observe this battle-hardened veteran fighting to restrain his tears.

For me the quote of the Games came from the Director General of the Gaelic Athletic Association.  The final was between the favourites the Irish police - An Garda Síochána - and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.   
After presenting winners medals to the Garda team, the DG joked that

“it was the first time I heard at a GAA match someone shouting Come on Northern Ireland.”

Even though these Games were about international competition, the thought which motivated that quotation provides proof positive for my opening premise about sport’s wider social benefits.  
It is also a subtle salute the success of the World Police and Fire Games 2013.

©Michael McSorley 2013

Saturday, 3 August 2013

A Recipe for Eating Healthily


People seem to be ravenous to know and hungry to read all about healthy eating and all things dietary.  
To prove the point, six of this week’s ten best selling hardback non-fiction books are about food.[1]  
Everybody from Mary Berry to hairy bikers are at it – and, I suspect, making a nice living in the process.

So, why not me?   
On second thoughts, maybe that isn’t a good idea.   
I’m not a celebrity chef, I’m not a food critic, I’m not a dietician, I’m not any kind of health guru, I have no qualifications in food science or oenology.

What I do have, however, is many years of experience in food and wine – mostly in the eating department, sometimes as a purchaser, and occasionally preparing edible delights.  
Based on this curriculum vitae, I have opinions about certain items of food and drink which I consider to be good for my health.

An inescapable part of modern life is the constant bombardment of information from experts recommending what we should and shouldn’t consume.  
We who occupy retirement-land can use our own judgement on such matters.  We have an enhanced sense of what is needed to stay healthy.  
Aware of our own mortality, we of all people are not going to eat unhealthily.    
For us, therefore, the proposition in favour of a good diet is axiomatic.   
Don’t argue with us.

It is, of course, entertaining and informative to read what the experts have to recommend.  Nigel Slater, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson are outstanding for their creative flair and sheer artistry.  
Their gift is to add novelty and excitement to dining, giving us the benefit of their considerable culinary expertise.


But what retired people know, especially when eating to promote good health, is that we are all different.  What agrees with you might not agree with me.  

Everybody has a different physiological make-up, I’m an ectomorph others are endomorphs, and we all have different tastes, preferences, intolerances even.  I, for instance, have a syndrome resulting in retention of iron.

Since retiring, therefore, I have developed my own dietary philosophy adapting to my new status in life and geared to being strong and healthy.   
The big theme is that I eat when I’m hungry.  For this rocket science, I deserve a PhD.  
It sounds obvious, but let me amplify the point anecdotally.

I remember writing and choreographing a sketch about thirty or more years ago for the Omagh Ladies Circle (wives of Round Table members), their competition entry to perform a one-minute advertisement for a health-food product.   
While their rivals sang and danced extolling the virtues of products like ginseng and Aloe Vera, my sketch adopted the music of Handel to gush melodic and lyrical praise on what I consider to be the ultimate health drink, revealed tantalisingly only in the final words - aqua vitae, water, the real uisce bheatha.

This is a slightly circuitous way of introducing what my mother used to describe as the most important meal of the day.


Getting up in the morning, my need for food is not an immediate priority.   
The first item I consume is water, as much as possible.  Think cleansing and flushing out the internal organs of the body, detoxifying naturally.  
My system needs a gentle start before I am hungry enough to eat.

A little later I will slice up a chilled orange and after that an indulgence, still concentrating on liquids.  
Some months ago, my wife spotted a product which she knew would appeal to my taste buds and their predilection for yoghurt.  An exhilarating and healthy start to the day is provided by a small glass of pouring yoghurt, the natural variety (when available) rather than the flavoured options, and adding an actimel drink which comes in a range of gorgeous flavours.  
It’s easily digestible, refreshing, brimming with goodness, and blissfully tasteful.

If I am attending a morning gym class, the chilled orange and yoghurt usually suffice for now.  In which case, I can postpone the main breakfast course.   
After exercise, hunger asserts itself.  That main course is rolled oats porridge, but not on its own.

I have been using my own recipe for a few years.  
I discovered latterly that Paula Radcliffe (who holds the world record for the women’s marathon) does likewise.   
I pour manuka honey, the 15+ (the level of its special antibacterial activity) and then add a chopped up banana to the top of the hot brachán, and finish by adding a generous helping of full fresh milk over the surface.   
Slow release energy, low in cholesterol, containing enough goodness and energy to power a body for at least 26.2 miles, and in record time.  Definitely worth trying.

Hotel breakfasts are another matter.  Every time I stay in Scottish and Irish hotels, I always order kippers rather than a fried breakfast.   
According to one report,[2]

“as a sustainable fish they are on the Marine Conservation Society's list of fish to eat” and sales have increased substantially in recent years.

To think that eating fish used to be undertaken on Fridays as a penance.   
The contemporary cooking method of modern chefs makes this humble fish a blissful delight which, unlike the fry-up, actually makes me feel alive and alert.  
Maybe it’s the omega 3 oils that make it so agreeable.


I notice food supplements on sale in gyms, health food shops and in supermarkets.  
I hear their benefits advocated by fitness experts and know many people who use them to improve their strength and to aid a quicker recovery from exercise.

For my part, however, a balanced diet using natural foods is enough to preclude the need for additives.  In addition to the theme of hunger to justify food, my second guiding principle is to consume natural products.  I concur with the contemporary adage that we must try more to live in harmony with nature.
I prefer to adhere to water, bananas, oily fish, manuka honey, fresh fruit and vegetables, brown bread and pasta, fresh fish and white meat, and avoid processed products, salt and additives.   
That still leaves plenty of leeway to avoid any necessity for a monastic existence of self-denial.

Calorie-free food

What I do not recommend are low fat foods, essentially because they are tasteless and low in nutrition.  
Low-fat cheese strikes me as a contradiction in terms.  Anyway, the body needs a reasonable modicum of natural fat.   
When I add milk to my porridge, it has to be full cream milk.  When I make a mug of hot chocolate, it has to be made with proper full milk, and with plenty of chocolate to taste.

By the way, there is new empirical evidence which advocates the health benefits of drinking hot chocolate (based on a study of people with an average age of 73). 

Normally I will use an olive-oil-based spread on toast or bread.  
If, however, I have tea with a scone in mid-morning, I want proper Irish butter to complement the baker’s artistry and enhance its wonderful flavour.


I have one of my daughters to thank for introducing me to green tea, red bush tea, and peppermint tea.  
Green tea with a slice of lemon is my breakfast choice, and the other two take their turn during the day.   
Having adjusted my taste buds, I now prefer these varieties with their incidental health-giving properties.


Bananas seem to be the ultimate food. I propose two reasons as justification.
The first argument is that because they contain three natural sugars (sucrose, fructose and glucose) combined with fibre, they give an instant, sustained and substantial boost of energy.   
I ate at least 20 on the recent two days of the 220 mile bike sportive, the Maracycle.

The second point is that bananas also seem to be something of a panacea.  
They can help overcome or prevent a substantial number of illnesses and conditions.  
Here are a few examples:-

  • *      According to a survey undertaken by MIND, the mental health charity, many people suffering from depression felt much better after eating a banana.  This is because bananas contain tryptophan, a type of protein that the body converts into serotonin, known to make you relax, improve your mood and generally make you feel happier.
  • *      Because the banana is high in potassium yet low in salt, it a good way to combat blood pressure.  So much so, that the US Food and Drug Administration has allowed the banana industry to make official claims for the fruit's ability to reduce the risk of blood pressure and stroke.
  • *      One of the quickest ways of curing a hangover is to have a banana milkshake, sweetened with honey.  The banana calms the stomach and, with the help of the honey, builds up depleted blood sugar levels, while the milk soothes and re-hydrates your system.
  • *      The banana is used as a dietary response to address intestinal disorders because of its soft texture and smoothness.  It is the only raw fruit that can be eaten without distress in over-chronicler cases.  It also neutralizes over-acidity and reduces irritation by coating the lining of the stomach.
  • *      Potassium is a vital mineral, which helps normalize the heartbeat, sends oxygen to the brain and regulates the body's water balance.  When we are stressed, our metabolic rate rises, thereby reducing our potassium levels.  These can be rebalanced with the help of a high-potassium banana snack.
Food economics

No aspect of life, especially for retired people, can escape the damage caused by the euphemistically-called economic downturn of the last four years.  
I blogged about the big global economic issues on the eve of June’s summit of world leaders in Co Fermanagh (“The G8 Lough down”).[3]   
The economics and politics of food production are no different.

Two issues come to mind.   
One relates to the difficulties faced by retired people on low income – pensioner poverty – and for whom the priority is not so much eating healthily, as being able to afford food with what meagre income they have.

The other issue is the political economy which has allowed a situation to develop where the free market is failing the producers of food.  
The example we hear quoted is that of farmers who receive less than it costs them to produce milk.  
A new poll commissioned by the Prince’s fund[4] reveals that a majority of British consumers would be prepared to pay more for food if they knew that the extra was going to farmers rather than supermarket shareholders.”

Family life

People criticise Government for being insufficiently supportive of family living. 
One aspect that is noticeable about life in the countries of southern Europe is that extended families come together especially when they dine together in the evening or at weekends.   
Food becomes an essential part of making it the occasion special and generations unite.  Spaniards, Italians, Croats and Greeks live longer than us, they dine healthily and they enjoy their food convivially en famille.

Food, like exercise, should be enjoyed.  
It does not necessarily mean being well-to-do either.   
Free products exist such as water, natural products like porridge, kippers and bananas do not cost a lot, and expensive products like manuka honey can be used sparingly.   
Pursuing a healthy dietary regime which includes exercising will save the NHS a lot of time and money caring for retired people.

More importantly it can, in my opinion,  help justify drinking an extra glass of life-enhancing Chilean red wine or a bottle of premium German beer brewed organically using 400 year old recipes, followed by a slice of home-made sponge cake or a piece of chilli chocolate.  

Life tastes good.

But can I compete with the hairy bikers?

©Michael McSorley 2013

[1] The Times Review 20072013
[2] The Guardian 07042012
[4] The Observer 21072013 p6 “The era of cheap food is over, says Tesco boss.” By Jay Rayner