Friday 17 November 2017

Rio locals get chance to buy into spirit of Paralympics

Jason Smyth answers questions at a press conference in Rio yesterday
Jason Smyth answers questions at a press conference in Rio yesterday

Cathal Dennehy

Later tonight, shortly after the sun sets over Rio de Janeiro, a man will sit in a wheelchair atop a steep, sloping ramp, high in the stands of the Maracana Stadium.

Aaron 'Wheelz' Fotheringham, a Las Vegas native with spina bifida, will edge himself towards the precipice, and as he does so the thought will strike viewers that this, surely, cannot be happening.

But off he'll go, cascading down the ramp at full speed before it curves steeply upwards, propelling the 24-year-old into the air and allowing him, for the briefest of moments, to fly.

It is, according to two volunteers I've spoken to, the undoubted highlight of tonight's opening ceremony, but in many ways it's also the perfect metaphor for the Paralympics themselves.

Fleeting

For much like these Games - where athletes will once again reposition the boundaries of their disabilities - it will provide a brief thrill, ignite some fleeting moments of genuine awe, but an inevitable fall back to earth awaits for the city's residents.

After a month here, it's hard to escape the feeling that Rio shouldn't really have hosted the Olympics, or indeed be staging the Paralympics. Brazil is still wading through its worst recession in decades, so all this feels a bit like throwing the world's biggest house party despite being months behind on your rent.

That's not to criticise the hosts, who have often been pitched into unreasonable comparisons with London 2012, a Games where a privileged society often clinked their glasses in self-congratulation.

Rio is a stunning setting, despite the destitution of a vastly unequal society being on display in several areas. The volunteers are friendly, endlessly helpful, and much like the locals, trip over themselves to apologise for supposedly 'poor' English.

In many ways, they shouldn't have such a sunny outlook, having been priced out of their own Olympics last month. The half-empty stands were often seen to exemplify a lack of interest, when in reality the Cariocas wanted, but just couldn't afford, to be a part of the Games.

This time around, organisers have seen sense, slashing ticket prices to somewhere between 10 and 90 reais (€3-€25) for each event. So far more than two thirds of the 2.5 million tickets have been snapped up.

Last month, it was little wonder that so many foreigners chose to stay home, given the portrait painted by the international media was so often of a dangerous, apocalyptic city. The truth is there are few, if any, mosquitoes here, just about zero Zika, and as for crime, the closest I've come witnessing it so far was watching that amateur boxing match in Barra.

Yes, Paralympic budgets have been slashed, and in recent weeks we've learned that even these Games aren't immune to the doping and corruption that have blighted the reputation of its bigger brother.

But much like the Olympics, it is the athletes who will save this, who will remind us again why we bother. Because despite there being extortionate cost involved, there is also extreme value.

You'll see it when Ireland's Jason Smyth and Cuba's Omara Durand - the fastest man and woman at these Games - blitz down a 100m straight faster than anyone with a visual impairment has a right to do.

It'll be there when Tatyana McFadden of the USA wheels her way around the track and wins just about everything in sight - seven gold medals is her target - or when Iran's Siamand Rahman tries to hoist 300kg off his chest and become the first ever Paralympic lifter to do so.

You'll see it when Daniel Dias, Brazil's answer to Michael Phelps, torpedoes his way through the pool and raises the roof in the sold-out aquatics stadium. It'll be there tonight, too, when that American - a man whose life has been confined to a wheelchair since the age of three - takes to that ramp and shows us all that a lack of wings doesn't mean you can't fly.

Ireland boss Ferguson expects tough test

Barry Ferguson admits that Ireland's Paralympic football team face a tough group but they are eager to get started.

The Ireland manager whose playing career included time at Longford Town, Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians and Sporting Fingal sees his side face Ukraine in their opening game of the seven-a-side Paralympic football tournament.

"We expect three of the hardest games I think we'll ever have," explains Ferguson whose side will also face Brazil and Britain.

"The draw really wasn't very kind to us," Ferguson added. "We've got probably three of the best teams in the world, Ukraine taking over from Russia as number one."

Ferguson however is in a very positive frame of mind when his team get their campaign under way against Ukraine, kicking off at 6.0pm Irish time tomorrow.

"With tournament football you want to get off to a good start, but we do understand we're playing the best team in the world."

Irish Independent

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