Only elite athletes heading to Paralympics
The Paralympics Games begin today in London and the Irish team hope to surpass their excellent performance in Beijing when they picked up three gold medals, one silver and a bronze. Brian Hayes Curtin looks at the Irish travelling who are expecting to win medals
Since a version of the first Paralympics came into being in 1960, they have changed and morphed in nature. The number of athletes participating in summer Paralympic Games has increased from 400 athletes from 23 countries in Rome in 1960 to the 4,200 elite athletes from approximately 165 nations set to compete in London 2012.
They are for elite athletes who happen to have disabilities. The focus for athletes is not only taking part, but also achieving. The Irish team is travelling aiming to win medals in an elite sport environment. Like their able-bodied compatriots in the Olympics, success will be measured by medals and achieve personal bests, in front of crowds of 80,000.
Beijing was a very successful competition for Ireland with the team achieving five medals, 22 finalists and 24 personal-best performances. This was achieved despite more athletes than ever before going to the Beijing Paralympics. 3,951 athletes from 146 countries appeared in Beijing.
Londoners have already embraced the Games. All 2.5 million tickets for the London Paralympics are likely to have sold out by now.
Irish team targets
Paralympic Performance Director, Nancy Chillingworth, says that the individual and team goals in London are targets of five medals and fifteen finalists. She also said: “The Irish team aim to achieve great personal and collective success at the Games.
“The performances of the athletes in qualification show that the targets of five medals and 15 finalists are achievable. We’ve planned meticulously to ensure that each athlete performs to their maximum in London.”
However this seems to be a conservative estimate as Ireland’s team boasts five current world champions, two world record holders across four events and current Paralympic gold medallists in sprinter Jason Smyth and 800m runner Michael McKillop.
Among the Irish athletes there are some world-class athletes and stars, many of whom compete in able-bodied events as well.
Sprinter Jason Smyth was a double gold winner in T13 100m and 200m in Beijing and was disappointed not to compete in the 100m in London a few weeks ago. The visually-impaired athlete was just 0.04 of a second short of earning a place in the 100m field.
He was the first Paralympian to compete in athletics’ able-bodied European Championships in Barcelona 2010 and World Championships in Daegu 2011. He has also been described as the “Usain Bolt of Paralympic sprinting” by one commentator.
The Derry man trains with American sprinter Tyson Gay in the US. The American, who was until recently the second fastest man in history, said that Smyth possesses better sprint technique than he does. He is the real deal.
And Smyth is not alone. Michael McKillop is reigning 800m Paralympic champion and double world champion and world record holder over 800m and 1500m. He also competes in able-bodied athletics and has represented Ireland in cross-country at U19 level.
Paralympics and disabilities
Olympic style games for athletes with a physical disability were first held in Rome in 1960. Today, the Paralympics are for elite athletes with disabilities. They emphasise the participants’ athletic achievements rather than their disability. Athletes compete in various classes of competition, and are classified according to their disability.
Classification is simply a structure for competition. Not unlike wrestling, boxing and weightlifting, where athletes are categorised by weight classes, elite athletes with disabilities are grouped in classes defined by the degree of function presented by the disability.
Traditionally there are athletes who belong to six different disability groups in the Paralympic Movement: amputee, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, spinal cord injuries, intellectual disability and a group which includes all those that do not fit into the aforementioned groups (les autres).
It all kicks off today in London. Catch it on Setanta Sports in association with Allianz. Coverage is available on UPC channel 105 and Sky channel 423, and is free for Sky viewers whether they are a Setanta subscriber or not.