Athletes are, by their nature, a selfish breed.
They have to be.
Unlike those who participate in team games, there is no support network on the track or in the field. Glory is personal. So, too, is grief. Whether Olympians or Paralympians, the buck stops with them.
Most couldn’t care about the bigger picture. Not Michael McKillop. When the 22-year old world and Paralympic champion from Newtownabbey in Antrim steps out at the Olympic Stadium in London’s East End later this week, he will feel responsibility to more than just himself. Follow McKillop on Twitter and you soon detect a frustration at the lack of recognition Paralympians like himself receive from the media and general public. And that annoyance was brought home again earlier this month as he watched the Olympics unfold in London.
When Kenya’s David Rudisha broke the 800m world record on the London track at the meet with that sensational run of 1:40.91, TV commentators tripped over themselves in their haste to declare it as the first the new stadium had seen.
McKillop knew better. Three months earlier, he had become the first male athlete to set a new global best in the arena when he ran 3:59.54 in the 1,500m at the Visa London Disability Athletics Challenge.
“I was looking at the TV when Rudisha won thinking ‘hold on, I hold that title’. If Usain Bolt had broken it, it would have been worldwide news but you only get it in a few newspapers in Ireland because it is a Paralympic event.”
That one annoyance apart, he was bowled over by the Olympics. McKillop went to college with Paddy Barnes and now, like his old classmate, is in the English capital hoping to claim a podium place at a second successive Games. The Irish team that competes across 10 sports and 12 days will boast five world champions and the number would most probably be six if sprinter Jason Smyth had not been injured for the last World Championships.
Smyth and McKillop are two of Ireland’s brightest hopes. Four years ago, the latter won 800m gold in Beijing in the T37 class — he has a mild form of cerebral palsy — but there was no 1,500m equivalent. This time there is, and he is determined to double up. Matching Smyth’s double in Beijing is a prime motivator but so too is the knowledge the London Games could well be the ones where the Paralympic movement breaks its glass ceiling.
“You watch the Olympics and pray that the expectation will carry over to the Paralympics and everyone will go out there, perform to the best of their abilities and hopefully we can come home with medals and be on the same level as them. We are training four years for this as well, to go out and win the medal that is exactly the same as the Olympians get. It just says Paralympics instead of Olympics on it.
“Not many people would recognise Paralympic sport as elite and we want to change that. We want people to think ‘hold on, this is top of the tree sport’.”
McKillop uses language and phrases we don’t always associate with Irish sports people. He talks about having to win in order to meet not his own expectations but those of others. He admits that anything less than two golds will be greeted as failure and he is comfortable with such pressure. The omens are good. A bone problem in his right foot curtailed his preparations at the tail end of 2011 but the injury responded well to treatment and, the odd cold or flu aside, he hasn’t had any hiccups since. Confidence has been boosted by his performances and results in able-bodied races. Personal bests have been recorded while he made the Irish Senior Championships final in 1,500m and won the national U23s over the same distance. “All I need now is the icing on top which is to do well in London.”
* The 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony begins tonight at 8.30pm and will be screened live by Setanta Ireland and Channel 4.
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