Paralympics: Great expectations for Ireland’s elite at Rio 2016
The 48-strong Irish team will be seeking to beat their medal haul at London Games
Going for gold: Ireland’s Jason Smyth, “the fastest Paralympian on the planet”, wins the 200m T13 final at the London Paralympic Games in 2012. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
“The team is ready to achieve great personal and collective success at the Games and their performances throughout the qualification process for Rio indicate that a medal target of eight for the team is achievable. It’s a challenging target but a realistic one,” said Ireland’s Paralympic performance director, Dave Malone.
Don’t be misled: it’s a lowball figure. Prior to the 2012 Paralympics in London, the ambition was to secure five podium places. Ireland won eight gold medals, three silver and five bronze – 16 in total.
Malone isn’t being disingenuous, but merely playing down the ambition of the 48-strong team that will represent Ireland in 10 of 23 sports, across the 11 days of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, where some 4,400 athletes from 170 countries will compete for 528 medals.
A four-time Paralympian, who won gold (Sydney) and two silver medals in the pool, Malone’s remit is the development and success of the high-performance programme on the world stage; his innate understanding of the challenges offers an obvious empathy on an individual and collective level.
The Ireland team travelled to Brazil in expectation rather than hope, indistinguishable in ambition and determination from their predecessors at the Olympics but arguably offering a better pre-Games prospect for podium places. The Paralympic motto is “Spirit in Motion” and that encapsulates the essence of what’s common to every competitor, irrespective of ability.
Looking from the outside in, it is tempting to marvel at the courage, determination and dedication, but the athletes are unconcerned by the sentiment ascribed to their circumstances. They don’t want sympathy or to be patronised; they want respect for their sporting prowess.
They live in the present, not the past. They are focused on the next training session or race, on justifying funding, on chasing targets, while in the pursuit of excellence, without any asterisk beside their achievements. They understand that the public do not view them, or the Paralympics, in the same light they reserve for able-bodied sportspeople. They’re fine with that, but are busy being the best they can.
The significant cuts in funding for the Paralympics will affect the number of workers, transportation options and sports venues, according to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), although the number of events will not be affected. Ticket sales have been poor; the low/high figure is between 3 and 12 per cent. It’s another hurdle in a lifetime of challenges for the participants.
Six of Ireland’s medal winners from London – Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop, Orla Barry, Helen Kearney, Catherine Walsh and Fran Meehan – will be in Rio. A number of parameters have changed in relation to qualification and eligibility, while a decision to drop a number of categories from some sports has directly affected two marquee Irish athletes.
Newtonabbey’s McKillop holds world records at 800m (1.57.17) – he won gold in Beijing and London – and 1,500m (3.59.53) at which he triumphed four years ago in the T37 class but like Smyth, the 26-year-old is limited to the one event, the longer distance, at Rio.
Walsh and her pilot, Fran Meehan, won silver and bronze medals in cycling four years ago on the track and the road. In Rio, they will compete in the Para-triathlon. They need look no further than 61-year-old team-mate, John Twomey, for inspiration in changing between sports.
The Cork man won a gold medal in the discus (1988) but from 2000 turned his attention to sailing, skippering the three-person keelboat Sonar class to 11th in London (2012), a position he will be trying to improve upon in Brazil.
The Irish team contains world record holders and European and World Championship medal-winners, across multiple sports underpinning a belief that the team can smash pre-Games targets. RTÉ has increased the coverage sevenfold from four years ago and will provide 30 hours of live coverage.
Paralympics Ireland chief executive Liam Harbison eloquently summed up the appeal of the Games.
“Very quickly, people realise that what they’re watching is real sport. They’re not watching a disabled person; they’re watching an elite athlete, someone who is finely tuned, sports science-backed, funded, well-prepared, the whole lot.
“Now that person happens to have some form of functional impairment and the first time you go to see them perform, that will be what you notice initially. But I guarantee you that inside the first hour, you will forget all about it and you will be glued to the sport.”