Chasing Paralympic dream as Rio revelry appears over the horizon

Luis Suarez’s injury. Italy training in a sauna. Leighton Baines’ reading habits.

Yep, it’s starting to dawn now. Finally. That realisation another World Cup is upon us and the sad fact any interest in it from these shores will be of the vicarious variety. At what point will England trip up and how will the ratio of tragedy and comedy fall? Are Spain good enough to win again? Can Brazil overcome the controversies over budgets and buildings and make us all love them and the competition again?

It’s just not the same, is it?

The only consolation is we are guaranteed a more involved role in two years’ time, when the world will again congregate in Brazil. The focus then will fall mainly on the Olympics, but the prospect of medals will increase markedly a few weeks after what most people would consider the ‘main’ event — when Ireland’s Paralympians look to back-up their 16-medal haul in London.

That’s not going to be easy.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) expects the number of countries competing in Rio to jump from 167 in 2012 up to and maybe over the 200-mark. More and more governing bodies around the world are buying in to the movement and fashioning structures and systems capable of competing and winning medals. The fact that the USA finished just sixth in the medal table in London is evidence enough of just how much more some countries can do.

Quality as well as quantity will inevitably shoot through the roof. Paralympics Ireland chief Liam Harbison has remarked on how the levels of performance across the movement “continues to break new ground” and that is just one of the reasons that the Irish branch has committed to a talent ID model and performance pathway in its latest strategic plan, which was launched in Dublin yesterday.

It’s an interesting time for the organisation. Research carried out by Pembroke Communications suggests the body and it’s athletes have retained a high recognition factor two years on from London but it remains in the twilight zone which is the lot of all sports apart from the Big Three, and maybe horse racing, until it reemerges centre stage four years later.

This summer is a big one for its competitors. As with those aiming for the Olympics, the months of August and September are awash with key events. Michael McKillop and the rest of the track and field athletes have a European Championship in Swansea. World medallist Ellen Keane will be among the swimmers in the pool in Eindhoven for their own Euros while others will compete in venues as diverse as China, the US and Portugal.

The rise in standards globally has been paired with the fact Ireland has had some of its most likely windows for success closed in recent months. Jason Smyth and McKillop will only be able to defend one of their two Paralympic titles due to the reclassification of some events while another 2012 gold medal winner, Bethany Firth, has switched allegiance to Britain.

All in all, of the eight gold medals earned in London, Ireland are in a position to defend just three of them in Brazil. All reasonable expectations were exceeded with the haul at London, one which gave Ireland a 19th-place finish that bettered the likes of Canada, New Zealand and Mexico, but ambitions remain high and a place inside the top 30 has been targeted for 2016. That was Austria two years ago, with 13 medals.

“It’s a challenging time,” Paralympic Ireland performance manager Dave Malone told the Irish Examiner at yesterday’s launch in the Thomas Prior Hall of Bewley’s Hotel in Ballsbridge.

“As you’ve said, we have lost a number of events to key athletes which is a major issue for us and we have also lost one of our star athletes from the swimming programme to a change of nationality, so these are challenges but we are faced with challenges every cycle.

“The future is bright but we are realistic the challenge of Rio is going to be enormous. It is the first Games in South America but we are in a really good place today and we will send a team with a good mix of experience and youth. Two words that sum it up are challenging and exciting.”

In a way, Paralympics Ireland has fashioned a rod for its own back by going so far above and beyond their stated goals in the British capital but the dye has been cast and the hope is that Ireland can make up for lost time when the party restarts in Brazil in 2016. “You are right in terms of London,” says Malone, “and we have to be realistic moving ahead to Rio but we are going to dream big as well. We have to believe that the athletes are good enough — I certainly do — and they need to believe that and I have no doubt but that will be the case. We are well on track to achieve all that.”

Worth waiting for? Should be.

Contact brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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