Paralympians leave other teams behind in popularity stakes


ANALYSIS:Most people, 89 per cent, who contributed to an online survey conducted by Ignite Research in the second week of November, believe sport has a positive effect on the country’s reputation, while just less than half of those interviewed, 45 per cent, says sport makes people proud to be Irish.

That Katie Taylor’s gold medal win makes her the most successful athlete in the country seems to be in no doubt, while the haul of medals in London for the Irish Paralympic team makes them the most popular choice for Team of the Year.

What the responses from up to 1,000 people also illustrates is Taylor’s gold in the ExCel Arena in August captured the public imagination like nothing else has done in years and that the 26-year-old has this year usurped Brian O’Driscoll as Ireland’s greatest sports person.

The Ireland rugby captain was a serial winner of the award and last year his exploits with Europe-conquering Leinster polled a leading 16.7 percent, with golfer Rory McIlroy slightly behind him with 16.3 per cent, and Taylor trailing in third with 13.1 per cent of the vote.

This year the Bray lightweight obliterated those figures and drew 561 votes, or 60 per cent of those asked what they regarded as the greatest Irish sporting achievement of 2012 .

McIlroy fourth

The Paralympic team performance was second, with 12 per cent of the vote, and the Donegal All-Ireland winning footballers third with six per cent.

For his Major win, McIlroy was in joint fourth place, with O’Driscoll and his back-to-back European Cup winning side, both with five per cent of the vote.

The survey also suggests the Republic of Ireland team, who qualified for Euro 2012, has not yet generated the national love that Jack Charlton’s team once did, and that the appeal of county GAA teams doesn’t seem to travel too far outside county boundaries despite the massive appeal of both sports.

Rugby, too, is seen to be played in pockets.

In Dublin, Leinster Rugby drew 18.48 per cent against a five per cent overall figure for Team of the Year, while in Connacht/Ulster (it was a 26- county survey) Donegal’s bridging of a 20-year-gap drew 34 per cent of those surveyed, with the national figure standing at 14 per cent.

Overall, the Irish boxers polled 23 per cent for Team of the Year, their second place to the Paralympic Team also significantly higher than Donegal and Leinster Rugby.

What stands out clearly in a huge international year of sport is that all things five rings were extremely popular, with one successful international boxing star and one international Irish team contributing significantly to the 89 per cent of those surveyed who believe sport contributes positively to Ireland’s reputation abroad.

The Irish Paralympic team’s popularity is a significant finding and demonstrates, perhaps for the first time, that Paralympic sport has stepped from the margins to compete successfully with able-bodied sports for people’s hearts and minds – and beat them hands down.

Emotional championship

Given it was a year when Europe won the Ryder Cup, McIlroy won a Major, Leinster won their second Heineken Cup and the Irish boxing team won four Olympic medals, the 38 per cent of people who chose the Paralympic Team above the boxers (23 per cent), Donegal’s emotional championship victory (14 per cent) and Leinster winning in Europe (11 per cent), is a standout message and a major contributor to the 45 per cent who say sports makes them proud to be Irish.

“I think it shows people are recognising us in mainstream sport now,” said Liam Harbison, the chief executive of Paralympic Council of Ireland.

“They are beginning to respect us as elite athletes. In the RTÉ Sports Awards we have three athletes contending (track athletes Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop and hand cyclist Mark Rohan) and are also up for Team of the Year.”

The Olympics and Paralympics also polled high in the sporting event that provided the most positive image of Ireland, between them drawing a figure of 61 per cent with McIlroy next up with 14 per cent of the 940 people surveyed.

Overall there are a lot of conclusions and speculation to be drawn from the figures but one thing is clear. Two areas of sport that had to fight for their acceptance, women’s boxing and Paralympic sport, stepped out of the shadows in 2012.

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