SportOn Athletics

Jason Smyth’s extraordinary career unlikely ever to be matched

When it comes to the Paralympics stage, no Irish athlete has done more to encourage the next generation

Usain Bolt popped up out of somewhere this week, lamenting the dearth of superstars in the sport.

It’s true the track and field has been a little more muted since he exited the stage six years ago. Not that a name and a face like Bolt was ever going to be swiftly replaced.

These are the sort of once-in-a-generation athletes that are only truly appreciated when they are finished. Hence we say we’ll never see their likes again.

“If you don’t have a superstar that stands out like I did, then it’s going to be hard to draw the big crowds, draw that attention you want,” Bolt explained, and in some ways he is right.


Only you can’t force or fake these things.

Same as you can’t force or fake another Jason Smyth. That their careers ran parallel for many years after first breaking onto the scene for real at the Beijing Olympics and then Paralympics in 2008 is entirely apt: the World’s Fastest Man, the World’s Fastest Paralympian.

Smyth’s announcement this week that he’s retiring from the sport at age 35, after an incredible 18 years undefeated in Paralympic sport, completes that running parallel, because like Bolt his likes don’t come around again very often at all. If at all.

Now, after all his success, all the medals he’s won, he owes this sport absolutely nothing more. He’ll be 37 by the time Paris rolls around in August of next year, for what would have been his fifth consecutive Games. That would have been another first for any Irish Paralympian, something Smyth knows all about already.

By his own recent admission, Tokyo was his finest hour, Smyth winning an incredibly close final of the T13 100 metres at the Paralympics at the age of 34.

So from Beijing 2008, to London 2012, to Rio 2016, to Tokyo 2020(21), he repeatedly hit his peak when it absolutely mattered most.

That race could have been different, Smyth forced to bring out his absolute best to beat Algeria’s Skander Djamil Athmani, the fastest qualifier, winning by 0.01 of a second, 10.53 to 10.54. Watch it again on YouTube.

There must have been times that year when his injury-riddled preparations might have hinted at ducking out of Tokyo, preserving his unbeaten record in the process.

That he kept going is a mark of the athlete, and that his career-ending winning tally includes six Paralympics gold medals, another six European gold medals, plus his eight at the World Championships (including one indoors, from 2005), is remarkable by any standard in any sport.

When we last spoke, Smyth was still intent on making Paris and that quest for another Paralympic gold, his reconsideration entirely understandable.

“Being logical, it’s a decision that had to be made,” he said, not shying from the consideration also made to his wife Elise and their daughters Evie and Lottie.

When we first met, he was the Derry schoolboy winning an Irish Schools sprint double in Tullamore, back in 2006, in the colours of Limavady Grammar School. That same day Smyth boldly declared that he wanted to be a world-class sprinter who happened to have a visual impairment. Not the other way around.

No Irish athlete more than Smyth has helped break down the distance between Olympics and Paralympics perceptions, on and off the track, not just in terms of what it takes to succeed.

They say the London Paralympics changed the Games entirely, although Beijing was a big deal too, even if still then a little misunderstood, one newspaper close to home running the unfortunate headline ‘Amputated Limb Battle Reaches Final Leg’ regarding Oscar Pistorius and his quest for three gold medals.

Smyth though wasn’t just a pioneering athlete on the Paralympics stage – unquestionably going where no sprinter has gone before – but someone who more than anybody else in this country paved the way for the sort of Paralympic success witnessed in other events in Tokyo, not least gold medal-winners Ellen Keane in the swimming pool and Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal in tandem cycling.

That he went unbeaten in Paralympics events for 18 years going back to his first European Championship gold in Espoo in Finland in 2005 is a model too of the sporting consistency only the very best can even aspire towards.

Throughout this, on and off the track, Smyth did have limits; as an eight-year old he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s Disease, a hereditary degenerative visual impairment, which by now has effectively taken away 90 per cent of his central eyesight. Not that Smyth ever viewed that as limiting his athletic potential.

He was asked many times how his limited vision affects his physical performance, and he’s been honest about it – saying he doesn’t know because that’s the only way he’s ever known how to run. Nothing in his years of competing ever changed that perception of himself.

When it came to identifying his sporting talent, Sport Ireland were first in line, and back in 2006, when Smyth was still at school, they awarded a contract category grant, the highest possible, worth €40,000.

He benefited from an early and timely investment in other ways, his first coach Stephen Maguire always of the opinion too he wanted Smyth to be respected first and foremost as an athlete, not a Paralympic athlete.

His lifetime best over the 100m, coming in able-bodied competition, was the 10.22 he clocked in 2011, a year after Smyth became the first Paralympics athlete to compete at the 2010 European Athletics Championships in Barcelona; a three-time Irish 100m champion, that time still ranks him third fastest on the Irish all-time behind Israel Olatunde and Paul Hession.

That time also got him close to becoming the first Paralympics athlete to also qualify for the Olympics. The A-standard for London was 10.18 seconds; his 10.22 left him short by the proverbial width of his vest.

Smyth was also largely self-coached in recent years too, calling on his now vast experience which over the years saw him train with one of the world’s best sprint groups under US coach Lance Brauman in Florida, always putting himself in the best position to succeed.

His talent and success won’t be lost to the sport, as he has been appointed as new strategy manager with Paralympics Ireland with immediate effect. Which is a good thing, because when it comes to the Paralympics stage, no Irish athlete has done more to encourage the next generation to be the next Jason Smyth. Not that we’ll see his likes again.