‘This must be Ireland’s greatest ever team’

It was the most incredible two weeks in London.

‘This must be Ireland’s  greatest ever team’

For many reasons.

Most notably, obviously, because of the performances. The level of competition at the Paralympic Games has gone through the roof but we have matched that and gone further by winning 16 medals. To be up there with that many is phenomenal.

People have seen it, it has been on everyone’s TVs and in everyone’s paper and matching what happened with the appropriate awareness and understanding of what Paralympic sport is has, along with the improved commercial support, made it the perfect storm.

The challenge now is to move it on from here and how we do that. The first thing is to try and identify new talent. We will have a spate of retirements, as we always do, and we will have to look at the structure of our own organisation and move with the times.

We have a talent ID event running on Oct 13 in UCD and that is based on a model we ran after Beijing in 2008. That was a day we expected about 50 people with disability to turn up and try out all the sports, meet the team and the coaches, but 400 people turned up, with very little promotion or coverage.

This time we would really hope to drive it home. Cadbury are sponsoring it and I have no doubt that we will unearth maybe 10 people that day who will be on the team come the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

At least six of the athletes who competed in London turned up at the open day four years ago and one of the great stories from that day was Anne Marie McDaid, who came in with MS and hobbling on crutches. She was struggling with mobility but got into our programme quickly, got heavy sports science and medical support over three years, and now walks 3km to 5km a day free of assistance. That gives her great quality of life and she is now a Paralympian because of it.

Mark Rohan, who won two golds in Brands Hatch last week, really got a feel for it that day as did James Scully, who competed in the Aquatic Centre.

There are so many stories from that day but it was also a great way of showing young people with disabilities that they can connect with the team. Young people with disabilities need role models with disabilities and who better than the likes of the Mark Rohans, the Michael McKillops, and the Jason Smyths?

We want to make sure that we keep that connectivity. There is no ego in our team. We are very open to people getting involved. The big challenge is going to be funding. High-performance funding has been protected through the recession because London was coming but Rio is four years away and a long way away geographically.

There won’t be as much pressure politically but I would hope we have demonstrated enough through the abilities and talents of the athletes that they are deserving of funding and potentially increased funding to make sure we hammer this home.

We got great support from the Irish Sports Council and, for the first time, from Sport Northern Ireland, and 18 sponsors came on board. The strategy with our commercial partners was to get them in, get them connected, to understand the sport and to get them and their employees in front of the athletes and that has been hugely successful. We also got them to London to see it first-hand and anybody who is Irish and who was there had to be touched by it. There were easily 8,000 or 9,000 Irish people cheering in the Olympic Stadium last Saturday week when Jason Smyth and Michael McKillop won the first of their two golds medals.

I just hope now they are home that the guys get the recognition they deserve. I don’t care what anyone else thinks: This is the greatest Irish team ever in any sport.

* Liam Harbison is chief executive of Paralympics Ireland and served as the team’s chef de mission for the 2012 Games.

* Read more:

Heroes’ welcome for group that beat all expectations

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