Sunday 17 December 2017

Paralympiccontenders on target for London

John Greene

John Greene

Tickets for next summer's Paralympics went on sale on Friday last, focusing the minds of Irish athletes, their coaches, families and friends that they are very much in countdown mode to London 2012. Within hours, it was being reported that there had been 50,000 applications.

And the fact that an Irish team will travel this time next year full of genuine optimism has been clearly underlined with some stellar performances in the past week. Ireland's rowers finished fifth at the FISA World Championships in Bled to secure their place at the games and then Mark Rohan and Colin Lynch both confirmed their rise to prominence by taking gold medals at the UCI Paracycling Road World Championships in Roskilde. There were medals there too for Catherine Walsh and Fran Meehan on the tandem.

Ireland has so far qualified competitors in five events, boccia, athletics, cycling, sailing and, now, rowing. This is a fine achievement already, and additional spots have been targeted in cycling and athletics while other sports firmly on the radar are archery, equestrian, swimming, shooting and table tennis.

Jason Smyth is likely to be the centre of attention in the Irish team, not just here but all over the world as he and the man known as blade runner, South African 400m runner Oscar Pistorius, intend to make history by competing in both games in London.

In Beijing, Ireland won three gold medals -- two of them of course won by Smyth in the 100m and 200m -- one silver and one bronze and the stated aim of the Paralympic Council of Ireland is to get another five medals in 2012, including three more golds. This was among a number of targets set down by the association two years ago. They are also targeting getting 15 athletes in finals, the equivalent of a top-eight finish, and achieving their five medals in four different sports.

This is a novel approach by the Paralympic Council, led by CEO Liam Harbison. To formally put in writing what its competitive aims are is a bold step in a sporting context but it focuses everyone too and it will be interesting to see if the team can deliver this time next year.

Ireland has won 18 medals at the games since Sydney, all in boccia, swimming and athletics but expect that to change too in London. Smyth (pictured) is naturally one of those strongly fancied to medal; he is after all the fastest Paralympian on the planet. Then there is Michael McKillop, a gold medal winner in 2008 in the 800m, who is also a world champion and still very much the one to beat in his event. Their exploits over the last year, culminating in their successes in the last few days, have clearly catapulted Rohan and Lynch into the medal frame and there is also Catherine O'Neill from Wexford in field events.

Certainly no stone is being left unturned in the build-up to the games. Just a few weeks back, 35 athletes and 25 support staff went into camp in Portugal while athletes have also been making full use of the facilities and expertise available to them at the Irish Institute of Sport.

The Paralympic movement worldwide, and not just in Ireland, is fighting a battle for awareness and recognition. It is a big step forward for the games to have Channel 4 -- despite some well publicised gaffes by Ortis Deley -- committed to broadcasting 150 hours of action across the 11 days. This puts pressure on RTE, who also have access to rights, to respond, especially given that medal hopes are so high.

The Paralympics feature a total 21 sports. Where the Olympic games will have nine or ten thousand competitors, there is a maximum of 4,200 allowed in the Paralympics and Ireland hopes that its final team number will be 40 -- certainly the team is on course to make that target.

In each of the 21 sports there are certain classifications according to the type of disability. Different sports have different systems of doing this but essentially the underlying principle is fairness -- in boxing you don't have flyweights going into the ring with heavyweights, and so it is in the Paralympics that every effort is made to make sure it's always a level playing field.

When an athlete first takes part in a Paralympic event in their native country, they are given a national classification. Then, when they first compete internationally, a new process of classification begins. Once an athlete has been classified, this can be permanent but there can also be a review process, generally for those with a progressive ailment.

Interestingly, London is the first Paralympics which was included as part of the candidate file in the application process for next year's Olympics. There's an irony in this too in that the birthplace of the Paralympics is Stoke. It's clear even at this remove that already LOCOG (The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) is way ahead of Beijing and Athens -- the stage of readiness is very high.

Harbison was in London last week to see at first hand how preparations are advancing and reported, via Twitter, that it was going to be 'the best games ever'. And he was probably talking about more than just the facilities.

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