Sports Minister Martin Cullen has extended his best wishes to the Irish team who will be competing at the Olympic Games in Beijing, which begins on Friday.

“Representing your country at the Olympic Games is one of the highest honours that can be bestowed upon a sportsperson. The Irish athletes who will compete in Beijing will enjoy that rare and special honour and will continue the proud tradition of Irish participation in Olympic competition.”

Added Minister Cullen: “For the 54 athletes representing Ireland across 12 sports, their hours and years of steady and oftentimes solitary practice, when no one was watching and no one was cheering, has paid off. I want to wish the entire team the very best of luck.”

Minister Cullen said: “Winning an Olympic medal is incredibly difficult and requires a combination of factors including aptitude, dedication, support and good fortune. Ireland has enjoyed some wonderful Olympic successes.

“I am sure that Irish people everywhere join me in hoping that Beijing 2008 will see more Irish athletes entering the folklore of Irish sporting success.”

The Minister said the team had been well prepared thanks to the efforts of Government, the Irish Sports Council and the various national sporting federations in recent years.

“The standards in elite sport continue to rise, and Olympic competition is obviously no exception. It is a wonderful sporting and personal achievement to even qualify for the Games.

“We understand the challenges ahead for the athletes and we wholeheartedly support their efforts. We have every confidence that they will perform to the maximum of their ability and will represent this country with honour and pride.”

Minister Cullen arrived in Beijing yesterday (Tuesday) and will attend Friday’s opening ceremony. On Monday next, he will attend an informal meeting of EU Sports Ministers in Beijing in the French Embassy.