Paralympic hero Jason Smyth hits out after being snubbed from Windsor Park event
Published 10/10/2016 | 12:38
A five-time Paralympic gold medal winner has questioned why he was omitted from a parade of famous faces at the opening of the new national football stadium.
Jason Smyth - a member of Team Ireland - questioned if his national colours meant more than his sporting achievements.
The "lap of legends" featured star names from the worlds of sport, music and television.
TV personality James Nesbitt and Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody joined sporting heroes including world champion boxer Carl Frampton and Olympic gold medallist Dame Mary Peters in the star-studded walk around the pitch.
Two of Northern Ireland's Paralympians, swimmer Bethany Firth and skier Kelly Gallagher, also took part in the event, ahead of Saturday evening's World Cup qualifier against San Marino.
But Team Ireland athletes Smyth and Michael McKillop were not present.
Smyth later took to Twitter to express his feelings.
In a message to Martin McGuinness, he wrote: "Only in NI does the colours you wear mean more than what you achieve! Do you think we will ever move on @M_McGuinness_SF?"
The Irish FA said it had not intended to cause offence to anyone who was left out of the event, which featured a wide range of people, both male and female, drawn from both communities and spanning different generations.
And Mr McGuinness responded, saying: "Jason, if we have any sense, we can't afford not to move on.
"Your contribution has been immense and must be recognised and appreciated."
Smyth, a legally blind sprint runner, is a twice double gold medallist and a world record holder in the 100 metres and 200 metres.
The 29-year-old won his fifth gold medal at the Paralympics in Rio last month.
He told the Belfast Telegraph he was disappointed that he and McKillop were not included alongside Firth and Gallagher.
"We've all been successful, we have all won gold medals. To me, looking at it, the biggest difference is really who we compete for," he said. "Hopefully that isn't it, but looking at it, that would definitely be the assumption.
"Maybe I'm assuming wrong, but it's not about success, it's not about what you've achieved in this instance."
He added: "There were lots of top people there from Northern Ireland and lots of people who weren't there.
"But I was looking at it from the perspective of Paralympics, and we have four Paralympic athletes who have done very well over the last number of years - myself, Kelly, Bethany and Michael McKillop.
"My question was just trying to figure out how come two of us were there and two of us weren't.
"We are all from Northern Ireland and we've all achieved a lot of success."
Smyth said he didn't consider himself either Protestant or Catholic.
"For me, sport is about achieving, about being successful and inspiring people," he added.
An Irish FA spokesman said: "The idea of the lap of legends was to bring some famous fans from the world of sport, TV and music together in one place, along with other supporters and the football family, to celebrate the opening of the new National Football Stadium at Windsor Park.
"There was a short 20-minute window in which to stage the event, so we were limited in terms of the number of people that we could invite.
"We did not intend to cause any offence to Jason or anyone else who was not part of the pre-match event.
"The Irish FA would be delighted to welcome Jason to the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in the future."