If the excellent 2012 Olympic Games are anything to go by , London will run an excellent Paralympic Games , starting in just a few short hours . I know Kinsale sailor John Twomey , who with his crew of Anthony Hegarty and Ian Costelloe are flying the flag for Ireland in the Sailing Competition . This isn’t John’s first Paralympic games – it is his 10th ! Great article about John ( here ) . I have raced with John on occasion and would suggest he’s one to watch over the coming days .
The story of the Paralympic Games is a fascinating one . Founded by Sir Ludwig Guttmann , a jewish neurosurgeon who fled Nazi Germany , the games have grown since Sir Ludwig organised an archery competition for 16 spinal injury patients in a British hospital in 1948 . I’m not sure if that event in 1948 was officially called “Paralympic Games” but it’s an interesting coincidence that , today , more than 4000 athletes will compete in these games , again in London . There’s an excellent article with this story ( here ) .
I was a very small part of the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta , Georgia , as coach for the sailing team .
I recall the games very well . Ireland was in the height of sporting ecstasy celebrating the performance of our swimmer Michelle Smith (later De Bruin) who won a number of gold and silver medals in the Olympic games just a few weeks earlier. She is rarely discussed now but at the time , little else was talked about . It’s an interesting aside that , when discussing Ireland’s Olympic past , she is only referred to in passing !
We arrived in Atlanta about 4 weeks after the Olympics to the incredible heat and humidity of an Atlanta summer . We had previously spent a week in Jacksonville training and acclimatising in preparation for the games . Most spectators only see sporting competitors at the main event – we sometimes don’t realise the years of application , dedication , setbacks , bounce-backs , pain , tears and disappointments that precede the games . For years before the Paralympics , the team worked to get used to their boat , their equipment , their team-mates , variable conditions . They refined their techniques , perfected their equipment , worked on their ability to get around the boat without the use of their legs . They travelled to various locations around Ireland and overseas at every possible occasion and had a regimented training routine that forced them to eat , drink and think competitive sailboat racing . The team couldn’t have trained any harder . Unfortunately , despite great performances , they didn’t make it to the podium .
At the time , athletes were graded and given a classification number/points to indicate their level of disability . The rules dictated that each boat could have a total crew weighting of no more than 9 points among the three crew members – i.e. you could have a grade 1 and two grade 4 crew members or any combination not exceeding 9 . In addition to random drug testing , regular random “disability” testing was also carried out . This meant that athletes were taken aside without notice and checked by a medical expert to see if they were , in fact , as disabled as they declared they were and if they merited their “classification number”. The scandal in 2000 of the Spanish team who won the gold medal in the intellectual disability basketball competition , only to have their medals stripped from them when it was found that most of the team weren’t disabled , is an indication of why this may be necessary .
What I do recall is that the Paralympic Games were a spectacle of the best that humankind can offer . As Sir Sebastian Coe says about these games , I was blown away by what I witnessed .
So , race well John , Anthony and Ian and all our athletes representing us in the 2012 Paralympic Games . For all these athletes this is the culmination of at least 4 years of complete dedication and persistence and I know that the organisers of the London Paralympic Games will ensure we get the chance to be “blown away” by these great athletes in action .