What’s a long time ago now, on foot of a pilgrimage to Lourdes, I ended up joining the local Scout group. It was a sojourn which didn’t last too long as GAA took priority. However, amidst all the merit badges, eye catching uniforms and memorable excursions to places such as Smarmore Castle in Co Louth and Morton Stadium, most abiding memories centre upon when sports were engaged in at the athletic track adjacent to the local den.
Commendable and appreciated efforts were put in place as an attempt at engineering inclusivity in the sporting activity for your columnist. One night, attempts to partake in a race took on a shade too much zest. Pilot lost control and – though absolutely no blame could or would be apportioned – I was left a few unexpected facial decorations.
In another sense, though, it facilitated a further germination in what has been a life defining interest in sport. Cognisance was arrived at rather quickly that actual participation therein wasn’t going to be a runner. Therefore, getting into writing, predominantly about sport, in the beginning at least, was an incalculable blessing as it allowed being as close to the action as could be hoped for in prevailing circumstances.
For all that, immense pleasure – and a little pride – emerges from seeing people with disabilities competing in and achieving success at sport. Even if he who was once thought to be the shining example of exactly that, Oscar Pistorious, sullied views once held to such a degree that they tarnished one’s outlook on life in ways that far outweigh sport in importance.
Yet, again, solace is gained from seeing folks known to me, and in similar positions, chase and achieve their dreams. People like James McCarthy and Bill Byrne and Sean Hughes. Most recently, the latter in particular has been a beacon of hope in a sporting world under a cloud. Achievements at the level which people like Sean inspirationally operate is where the purist and most inspirational of sport resides.
Hesitation at tarring all involved in the likes of athletics and cycling with the one brush is fuelled by a realisation that there are those who do go about things the right way. And hope that cheats are in the minority.
Granted, such aspirations are difficult to lace with conviction when the murkiness surrounding Mo Farrah’s coach, Alberto Salazar are considered. Or the full, nauseating extent of Lance Armstrong’s misdeeds – so brilliantly depicted in the spellbinding documentary Stop At Nothing. The latter will always rankle deeply for highly personal reasons here and, taking into account the volume of nefariousness to engulf cycling and proclaimed desires to escape said shroud, it was deeply disheartening to see yet another member of the peloton test positive during this year’s Tour De France.
Which is why the outstanding achievements of Sean Hughes serve as a restoration of belief of all that’s good in sport and, by extension, the good it can do for lives on levels far more significant than those of sporting success. When last the Dunboyne AC athlete’s story appeared in this space, he had just won three major titles – in his first full season competing – won the shot putt and came second in the discus in Coventry before setting a new Irish record in what were “Basically the World Championships for wheelchair users and amputees” at Stoke Mandeville in August and bettering his own record at the last meet of the season in Cork.
All the while, Rio next year remains the target. No loosely held pipe dream either. Hughes recently further underlined his merited standing noteworthy contender should all go to plan and he end up in Brazil when he collected another triumvirate of medals at the IWAS World Games in Holland.
Namely, a gold gong in the U-18 Shot Putt, silver in the Javelin and a bronze in the Discus. The Olympics and Paralympics are rightly regarded as the greatest sporting shows on earth. Even if – despite the best efforts of some – the latter doesn’t get the quantity of coverage it merits in comparison to the former.
Much will be made of Ireland’s medal prospects at the ‘main event’ in South America. Most of which could again revolve around Katie Taylor. Though the gold panning excellence of Portlaoise pugilist Michael O’Reilly has surely catapulted him in to such calculations as well.
The thing is, even if Ireland had no competitors in the Olympics itself – let alone medal aspirations – the masses would still tune in. As has often been the case in major soccer tournaments and unfortunately looks likely to be the case again at the end of next season.
How great it would be to see our Paralympic athletes get the coverage and support they deserve and merit. Hope would be that close to home generating such interest should be no problem as a special part of the Irish Paralympic story may resonate greatly close to home.