| 12.3°C Dublin

No sympathy needed for our true superstars

The feats of the London Paralympians in general and, from our point of view, the Irish competitors in particular show that the 'Meet The Superhumans' advertising campaign before the Games was not one whit exaggerated. Their achievements leave me in awe.

The man widely regarded as the father of the Paralympics was the late Dr Ludwig Guttman, whose work with Allied servicemen who suffered disabling injuries during the Second World War led him to believe that their physical and mental well-being would be improved if they became involved in sport.

Dr Guttman organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games, named after the hospital where he worked and the precursor to the modern Paralympics. They opened on July 28, 1948, the same date as the London Olympics of that year. I'm sure the gulf between the Olympic athletes and the Stoke Mandeville athletes seemed both massive and unbridgeable.

I wonder if Dr Guttman would have believed it had you told him that by the next time the Olympics came to London, a triple amputee would be swimming fast enough to have won a place in the 400m freestyle final of that 1948 Games.

An 18-year-old triple amputee. From Ireland. Gorey's Darragh McDonald, who led from start to finish to go one better than the silver medal he won in Beijing. McDonald's go-for-broke approach to his final made it a particularly stirring moment in a Games not short of stirring moments.

As did the triumph of Mark Rohan who went into the Games under a certain amount of pressure as a reigning world champion and the subject of much media attention. Rohan delivered in spades with a double in the handcycling time trial and road race.

Perhaps at the moment of victory the Westmeath man's thoughts went back to his first ever experience on the handcycle when, "it was two degrees and I went a mile down the road and I came back and I tried to get the keys to the back door out of my wheelchair and I couldn't. It was the first time I cried in a long time."

Rohan got through that. In many ways the story of our Paralympians is a history of getting through things. We have been told that we should focus on the athlete rather than the disability but to a large extent these are connected in the Paralympics. We often look to sport, any kind of sport, to expand our notion of what the human body and spirit are capable of in extremis. From this point of view, the Paralympics are not a lesser form of sporting endeavour, they're a higher form.

You can't get past the fact that Mark Rohan, after the accident which paralysed him from the waist down was, in his own words, "in hospital for seven months depending on people to shower you and teach you how to do a hundred and one things again." It is part of his story. But so are the moments when he is, "in the bike -- you're out in the middle of the country, in the fresh air -- it gives you such a sense of freedom, it gives you so much. You forget about your disability, you know."

Prior to their marriage developing some small difficulties, Shakespeare's Othello boasted that his wife "loved me for the dangers I had passed". The admiration felt by the Irish public for our Paralympians has a similar dynamic. The effort put in by top sportsmen is beyond the abilities of most of us, when that effort is accompanied by the overcoming of a disability it is almost beyond our comprehension.

There's no point in claiming that the Paralympics is exactly the same as the Olympics. It's not the same, it's not better and it's not worse. It's just different. But it deserves the same amount of respect as its able-bodied cousin.

At the time of asking, Ireland lies 15th in the medal standings with the likes of Spain, South Africa and Japan trailing in our wake. The 14 nations above us all have at least twice our population.

Given what James Reilly's attempts to cut home help hours said about the state's attitude to the disabled, this owes little to the government. It's the product of extraordinary hard work by the team, their coaches and their families. That's why when the Team of the Year awards are handed out at the end of 2012, there is only going to be one proper candidate. And that award should not be made out of sympathy or tokenism but out of awe and respect.

We're so often urged to count our blessings when contemplating the disabled, to adopt a 'there but for the grace of God go I' attitude that it seems counter-intuitive to suggest we might ever envy them. But who wouldn't like to have the talent, the resilience and the courage of Mark Rohan, Darragh McDonald, Michael McKillop, Jason Smith, Bethany Firth, Catherine O'Neill, Orla Barry, Catherine Walsh, James Brown and Helen Kearney, medallists all?

These are great, great people. They'll be landing at Dublin Airport at seven o'clock tomorrow night.

Sunday Indo Sport