Paralympic TV View: Jaws on floors as athletes’ prowess does the talking

It’s good to highlight the Paralympians’ stories, but let’s not take our eyes off the action

Ibrahim  Hamadtou of Egypt  competes in his men’s singles table tennis match at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics on Wednesday.  Photograph: Chang W Lee/New York Times

Ibrahim Hamadtou of Egypt competes in his men’s singles table tennis match at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics on Wednesday. Photograph: Chang W Lee/New York Times

 

It was Joanne O’Riordan, of this here parish, who made the point at the start of RTÉ’s coverage of the Paralympics that while it’s good to highlight the back stories of these athletes and the nature of their journeys to the elite level of their sports, that shouldn’t be the sole focus. It was just as important, she said, to focus on their “athletic feats”, many of which would leave our “jaws dropping”.

Enter Egyptian Ibrahim Hamadtou, Channel 4 bringing us coverage of his opening table tennis match against Korea’s Park Hong Kyu. Jaws? At ground level.

And before you see this fella play, it’s easy enough to fixate on his back story because it’s a remarkable one.

When he was just 10 he had to have both his arms amputated after falling from a train and getting caught between it and a platform. For a year after the accident he only left his house at night because, he said, “I didn’t like the looks of pity on people’s faces.”

He tried taking up football, but because of a lack of balance he was regularly falling over and injuring himself. He liked the look of table tennis, so decided to give it a go. At first he tried holding the bat in his armpit, but with little success. So then he tried holding it between his teeth and using his foot to flick the ball in to the air to allow him serve.

How did that work? Well, photos of him in action appeared in half the planet’s newspapers during the 2016 Rio Paralympics. It went well, then.

Now 48, Hamadtou has made it to his second Paralympics, and while he lost to Park, he was as mesmerising to watch as he was in Rio.

Physical challenge

He talked before about what a different physical challenge it is for him compared to other players, how he relies on his legs much more, and so he needs to work endlessly on strengthening them. Likewise his neck, the source of the power he puts in to all those smashes, and his teeth too. If they lose their grip of his bat, that’s it, “point lost”.

After 30 seconds of watching the United States take on New Zealand in wheelchair rugby, you could see why this sport was once called ‘murderball’

But when he’s in full flow and contesting one of those astounding table tennis rallies where players reach the ball when it doesn’t appear humanly possible, you forget all the challenges Hamadtou faces – you just marvel at his artistry. The quality of his serves, the spin, the power, the touch, the angles. Masterful. A talent as jaw-dropping as his back story.

One of the more jaw-dropping aspects of wheelchair rugby, meanwhile, is the cacophonous sound of players smashing in to each other. After 30 seconds of watching the United States take on New Zealand, you could see why this sport was once called “murderball”. That term is more commonly used these days to describe Marcelo Bielsa’s training drills at Leeds United, but if his lads think they’re tough, they should try wheelchair rugby.

“It’s dodgems with a ball,” as Greg Mitchell put it, him being the coach of the superbly named Wheel Blacks. He’s not even the most important person on the NZ sideline; that would be the person with a toolbox who is regularly called upon to repair mangled wheelchairs that have been nigh-on totalled by collisions.

Weapons

It’s bloody marvellous stuff to watch, the wheelchairs more weapons than modes of transport. Murderous, if you like. Spare a thought for the Wheel Blacks’ Barney Koneferenisi – he scored 23 tries and still ended up on the losing side.

As did Australia in their Goalball meeting with Israel. This is the sport where visually impaired teams of three aim to score goals with a ball that has bells in it which allows them to track its location on the court. It’s another extraordinary watch.

Once Israel went 11-1 up, with six minutes to go, the game was ended due to the “mercy” rule, ie once there’s a 10-goal difference between the teams, the contest is over. After last Sunday, Cork might wish hurling had a mercy rule too.

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