Irish athletes 'living the dream' at Paralympics

 

AN ATMOSPHERE of jollity descended on the Paralympic athletes’ village yesterday as competitors readied themselves for the serious business ahead.

Some 27 countries took their turn for the official meet and greet in the village square, accompanied by an ear-splitting soundtrack comprising a Queen medley followed by the national anthem of the competing countries, “and that doesn’t include the rehearsals”, said one weary-sounding competitor.

Countries participating ranged from hosts Great Britain and their arch-rivals Australia to Vanuatu, an island state of 230,000 people in the south Pacific.

Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London organising committee, visited the village yesterday, signing his name on a transparent display wall and marvelling at how the place could be transformed from an Olympic to a Paralympic venue in 10 working days.

Coe predicted Irish sprinter Jason Smyth would be one of the stars of the Games, which start this evening, but said “there will be no shortage of people vying for that position”.

He reiterated that the origins of the Paralympic Games at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948 gave the London organisers a special responsibility to put on the best Games to date.

The four torches from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland came together to light one torch at Stoke Mandeville, just outside London, last night at the start of a 24-hour relay to the Olympic Stadium for tonight’s opening ceremony.

“We take it very personally. So much of the Paralympic movement is part of our history. I don’t want to sound nationalistic or jingoistic, but there is a lot of pride in that,” said Coe.

The opening ceremony will be based on the theme of Enlightenment, focusing on the time between the Renaissance and the middle of the 18th century which proved to be such a progressive period in history.

The Irish flag will be carried by 43-year-old cyclist Cathal Miller.

The Irish team have been here since Friday and can hardly be missed, with their portraits hanging from the top balcony of an apartment block which directly overlooks the Olympic Stadium.

There are 49 Irish athletes taking part but the first-day competitors will sit out the opening ceremony tonight. Among the first to spring into action will be tandem cyclists James Brown and Damien Shaw.

Born in Co Down, Brown is a former gold medal Paralympian in athletics, winning gold for Great Britain in the 800m and 1,500m partially sighted category in New York in 1984.

Now 47, he is paired with Shaw, 20 years his junior. Despite the age gap, the pair won silver for Ireland at the 4km tandem cycling pursuit at the World Track Paracycling Championships in LA this year.

An able-bodied athlete, Shaw, who only switched from athletics to cycling two years ago, jokingly describes himself as the “fastest ginger on two wheels” and will be the pilot.

His cycling team mate Enda Smyth, known as Enzo, will also be in action tomorrow, in the individual 1km time trial in the velodrome. Smyth (43) was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy similar to that experienced by middle-distance runner Michael McKillip, who is one of the great Irish hopes for medals.

By his own admission he’s “living the dream”, having almost not made it when he fractured his elbow “after a slight collision with a drain” while on a training camp in Majorca seven weeks ago.

“We’re at the biggest show on Earth with an Irish jersey on our backs. It makes up for all the training in the pissings of rain. People would give their right arm to be here,” he said, glancing over at his good friend and fellow cyclist Miller who has no right arm below the elbow.

Miller took the remark in the spirit in which it was intended.

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