Jason Smyth still rising above the challenges and prejudices
His longevity and medal haul makes him the greatest Paralympics sprinter of his generation
Jason Smyth on his way to winning the T13 100m final during the 2018 World Para Athletics European Championships at Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark in Berlin, Germany. Photograph: Luc Percival/Sportsfile
There is nothing more sad or glorious than generations changing hands. That’s stolen from Ecclesiastes – and in the near 40 years since given a pocket Bible for the last papal visit there’s still more love and theft in that book than any other.
Sometimes in the sporting sense it can be more sad than glorious.
Like those pictures this week of Usain Bolt, the self-confessed greatest sprinter of his generation, trying to change himself into a professional footballer with Central Coast Mariners, the struggling Australian A-League club in the old coastal town Gosford, about an hour north of Sydney.
It’s hard not to see it as some kind of sad publicity stunt for either the club or for Bolt – or indeed for both. The Central Coast Mariners finished bottom of the 10-team league last season, haven’t made the play-offs in five years, and in one of the country’s smallest football markets would try just about anything to boost their brand.
Bolt, who in fairness flagged his football aspirations as far back as 2012, hasn’t exactly hit the ground running. The first training session with the Mariners on Tuesday, his 32nd birthday, was marked more by his lack of pace than thrill of it, his reaction and first touch nothing above average. He looks, by some accounts, simply too slow.
After three unsuccessful trials already – with Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund, Mamelodi Sundowns in South Africa and Norwegian side Strømsgodset – Bolt is at least intent on lasting the season, and could play his first match next Saturday. Only one year after breaking down at the World Championships in London, it seems he too would try anything to boost his brand.
Plenty of other Olympic sprint champions have gone down different sporting paths, some gloriously so. Bob Hayes, America’s double gold medallist in 1964, later played for the Dallas Cowboys, and team-mate Jim Hines, the first man to run under 10 seconds for 100 metres, played one season with the Miami Dolphins a year after winning gold in 1968.
Although nothing will ever be as sad as Jesse Owens ending up racing against a horse.
For Bolt it must be a reminder, too, that the sprinting generation has already moved on, almost exactly 10 years since he first made it his at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, at age 21, winning his first of nine sprint gold medals. Bolt did have to hand one of those back, after his Jamaican relay team-mate Nester Carter retrospectively tested positive for MHA (the banned stimulant also well-known by one unfortunate Kerry footballer), but with both his world records still intact – 9.54 for 100m and 19.19 for 200m – it could be a while before his generation is properly eclipsed.
All of which brings me to Jason Smyth, who also announced himself as the best Paralympics sprinter of his generation in Beijing 2008, but who unlike Bolt isn’t letting that change hands just yet. Also 21 at the time, Smyth came to Beijing already unbeaten on the major championship stage, having won two gold medals at the 2006 World Para-Athletics Championships in Assen, in the Netherlands. He’d also won European Para-Athletics gold in Espoo, Finland, back in 2005.
On Thursday evening in Berlin, Smyth further extended what is, by his own admission, a quite remarkable winning streak; now 13 years undefeated on the international stage, he pocketed gold medal number 19 at the European Para-Athletics Championships, with another record to boot.
After adding the T13 100 metres title to go with the 200m won on Tuesday evening, that makes it five Paralympics gold medals, another eight at the World Championships (including one indoors, from 2005), plus his now six European gold medals. By any standards it is unique in Irish sport – and Smyth is already eyeing up Tokyo 2020, his fourth Paralympics, where even at age 33 there is the promise of yet more gold.
However, Smyth didn’t leave Berlin without a little parting shot over what he feels is the lack of recognition for Para-Athletics sport, at least away from the Paralympics stage of once every four years.
“It’s not about me, because I’m just one person within my sport,” Smyth told The Irish Times. “It’s about the sport not getting the recognition. I’m just the one who has been most successful, but you tell me of someone who has won 19 gold medals, someone who is unbeaten in the major championships their whole career, for 13 years... if that was any other sport, if I was a boxer or a golfer or if I played tennis, I think you would be known everywhere for the things you have done.
“That’s not me feeling bad about it, or being negative, it’s just being honest, when you look at the facts of it. All I can continue to do is win medals, be successful, and hopefully over time that changes. Like a lot of things in sport, it takes time to lead the way and change things.”
Maybe things are changing. Smyth’s latest gold medal made the RTÉ main evening news and at least this national newspaper. And whatever about recognition, since winning his first gold medal in 2005, Smyth has been given the top podium grant of €40,000, plus other medal bonuses, for those same 13 years, amounting to more than €500,000 in direct athlete support – more than any other Irish athlete in the history of grant aid.
The Para-Athletics Championships have had some issues of their own in recognising the different classifications: athletes are occasionally reclassified, or indeed have events dropped (Smyth’s T13 200m for example, the category for visually impaired, wasn’t part of the 2016 Paralympics in Rio). It’s not always easy, either, to gauge the strength of his opposition, nor indeed exactly how much his visual impairment impacts on the sheer physicality of sprinting, at least in a straight line.
What is certain is Smyth’s longevity and glorious medal haul makes him the greatest Paralympics sprinter of his generation, already a role model for the next. And given the challenges and prejudices he’s overcome during those 13 years, there’s no putting a price on all that.