Ireland take giant leap with Games

As the days ticked by and Ireland’s medal count climbed higher and higher at the Paralympic Games, the fear mounted just as quickly that people might get the wrong impression that it was all just a wee bit too easy.

Ireland take giant leap with Games

It’s an accusation given some ballast by figures which show there were approximately 1500 medals awarded among the 4,200 athletes. Then there was the odd final in the Olympic Stadium where only four athletes ran.

But try saying that to Colin Lynch.

The 41-year-old amputee dedicated the last four years of his life to London 2012. He quit his job, took up paracycling full-time and arrived at the Games two weeks ago as the reigning UCI world paracycling road time trial champion.

Last Friday week, Lynch led Laurent Thirione of France through 99.9% of the bronze medal race in the individual pursuit C2 at the Velodrome only to be caught on the line and beaten by less than the spin of a wheel.

That, and his utter devastation afterwards, stand as the firmest of rebukes to suspicions that the Games are mere ‘medals for the boys or girls’.

Lynch’s disappointment would be deepened in Brands Hatch days later where he recorded another close-but-no-cigar fifth-placed finish in the individual time trial before crashing on the opening lap of the road race.

Yet he was unusual among those flagged pre-Games as Irish medal contenders. More often than not, those expected to medal did so and those expected to win, won. Even Liam Harbison, Paralympics Ireland CEO and the team’s chef de mission, was taken aback by the high conversion rate.

“My first Games were in Sydney and the team got nine medals there, five of them gold. Here, while we targeted five medals and thought we could maybe get 10, we reckoned we had 17 medal possibilities but you don’t expect the return we got.

“You just don’t get that in high performance sport so something has really clicked. What happened was incredible, even if we felt we are one of the stronger smaller National Paralympic Councils in the world.”

That they most certainly are.

Most of our Olympic sports are playing catch-up with the rest of the developed world but the Paralympic movement here is clearly punching well above it’s weight, having finished 19th on the medal table and ahead of nations including Canada, New Zealand and Japan. The smallest country ranked above Ireland was Tunisia, population 11.5 million.

Harbison’s stretch target for the ladder was 30th, following a 36th place finish in Beijing four years ago.

The progress made by Paralympics Ireland is all the more astonishing given the fact the team finished down in 64th spot in Athens in 2004.

That said, there is little doubt but that the scope for improvement is enormous worldwide. The Paralympics still has some way to go to shed it’s tag of being a Games for richer countries but even that doesn’t tell the whole story.

The USA may continue to dominate the Olympics medal table but they finished only sixth at the Paralympics, which can be at least partly explained by the poverty of the social health system in the world’s most powerful nation.

The alacrity with which world records fell during the Games, not to mention the margin by which some of them were bettered, is testament to the huge stride the Paralympics have, and will continue to, make in the years ahead.

Make no mistake, Ireland is in the vanguard.

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