Dr Ed Coughlan: Now is the time for Paralympians to receive the respect they deserve

Róisín Ní Ríain put forward some of the misconceptions she has had to deal with, such as that para athletes don’t have the same level of commitment
Dr Ed Coughlan: Now is the time for Paralympians to receive the respect they deserve

INSPIRATIONAL STUFF: China’s Tao Zheng competes in his men’s 100m freestyle heat on day two of the Paralympic Games at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. ‘The backstories for many Paralympians reflect a resolve to find a way,’ argues our columnist. Picture: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The Olympics family covers humanity well and in many respects is the best version of ourselves and a shining example of what is possible.

As a nation we are fortunate to have strong representation across the board, apart from maybe the winter disciplines.

The recent Olympics were, as always, incredible, the current Paralympics are, as always, inspirational, and the Special Olympics in Berlin in 2023 will be, as always, life-affirming.

The similarities that bind the biggest sporting events on the planet are found in the endeavour of the athletes, and the unwavering drive to be better than yourself first and foremost, and then your competitors when the Games begin.

The 16th Paralympic Games commenced this week in Tokyo since the first Games were held in Rome in 1960 as part of a summer Olympics programme. Incidentally, it wasn’t officially recognised as the Paralympic Games by the International Olympic Committee until 1984 and a further five years passed before the International Paralympic Committee was formed in 1989.

Before all that it was known as the Stoke-Mandeville Games in recognition of the hospital that treated many World War II veterans with life-changing injuries who inspired a Games to showcase that life did not need to stop because of a life committed to a wheelchair or as a result of an amputation. The Invictus Games keeps this tradition alive of recognising the sporting achievements of injured servicemen and women. There are other parallel sporting events such as the World Wheelchair and Amputee Games that many Paralympians compete in between the normal four-year Paralympic cycle.

The backstories for many Paralympians reflect a resolve to find a way.

Find a way to overcome a genetic predisposition that made them feel different as a kid.

Find a way to move on from an unexpected illness or accident that initially seemed to stop them in their tracks.

Find a way to feel grateful for what they have and not dwell on what they do not have.

This capacity to change the narrative is common across all successful athletes. In fact, sport is just fortunate that they chose it and not some other endeavour that they would have likely excelled at, albeit away from a global audience.

Sport is the means by which they express themselves and we the fans get to revel in their achievement. However, to simplify it as just determined people doing active things misses the point entirely.

Channel 4 recently showed a brilliant programme titled Changing Gears, presented by Billy Monger that exemplified the calibre of athletes we are dealing with at a Paralympics.

Billy, a talented racing car driver in his youth, had his dreams of a career in Formula One dashed in 2017 when his car crashed at Donnington race track resulting in a double leg amputation.

After the customary outpouring of support he received from those close to him and those he would never know or meet he was struck with how nonchalant people became with their assumption that he would go on to become a para-athlete and one day a Paralympian.

Unsurprisingly, he never had any aspirations of being a Paralympian, nonetheless, he did find the assumptions of others quite surprising. Possibly because he recognised what it took to excel at something, anything, but more so because it was so different to his own opinion.

He always saw Paralympians as athletes who had to be athletic while having to deal with what seemed like insurmountable obstacles in every other aspect of their lives. To think that people saw para-athleticism as an obvious option was worthy of exploration, and the subject of the aforementioned programme.

In it he immerses himself in the training environments of several Paralympians in sports such as open-water swimming, canoeing, and sprinting only to find himself as lost as anyone else would be when you are thrust into the realm of a high performing athlete, para or otherwise.

What is also apparent is the level of sport science support that follows the mite of a modern-day Paralympian. The psychological and physiological support is a given. It is the almost futuristic level of technology involved with the biomechanics and bioengineering that is a fascination in and of itself.

Equipment is tailored to the bespoke requirements of the athlete, depending on their needs.

Bikes have carbon fibre limbs attached to replace a missing limb from an athlete. Boats have bracing scaffolds to counter the weight imbalance from a top-heavy athlete.

Prosthetics are built to create force in a naturalistic way so as to enable movement that is both controllable and explosive in equal measure.

And once all this equipment is designed, delivered, and fitted, it must then be blended into an already finely tuned specimen who will push its engineering to the very limits of its capacity and often times to breaking point in the search of faster, stronger, higher, and longer.

As Team Ireland prepared for departure to Tokyo in recent weeks insights were gained as to the challenges they encounter and overcome en route to such a career highpoint. There were also threads of bemusement from some of the athletes. For instance, swimmer Róisín Ní Ríain put forward some of the misconceptions she has had to deal with, such as that para athletes don’t have the same level of commitment, or don’t train as hard as other athletes.

Cyclist Eve McCrystal sees change being directly linked to exposure and funding support. In a lot of respects, the Paralympics are still in their infancy from a media perspective compared to other sports, but the tide has been shifting rapidly in recent years and with that a greater appreciation of the skill and athleticism on show.

Swimming gold in Tokyo, Ellen Keane, has spoken of the responsibility of Paralympians to showcase their work, a responsibility that mainstream athletes probably don’t have to do so much. However, she sees it as an opportunity and not an obstacle. A chance to share the rigours of being an elite athlete aiming to qualify to world-class international standards just the same as anyone else.

None of this is to suggest that Paralympians expect to be viewed any differently from any other athlete, on the contrary, such is their confidence that given the chance to impress they will will rise to the pressure that comes with expectation.

There is an energy surrounding this year’s Paralympics, even in the shadow of Covid-19, and Team Ireland with their 29 athletes across nine sports are responsible for this feeling. The perfect blend of youth and experience probably contributes to this also, with Paralympic debutant, cyclist Richael Timothy, joining the likes of household names such as multiple track Olympic champions Michael McKillop and Jason Smyth on the plane to Japan.

Like every major sporting event there is something for everyone in Tokyo over the next two weeks. Be sure to treat yourself to some good old-fashioned competition where the best of the best go head-to-head for Paralympic glory. Personal favourites are football five-a-side, goalball and all the racquet sports, tennis, badminton, and table-tennis. Keep an eye out for Egypt’s Ibrahim Hamadtou in the table-tennis — mic drop.

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