Monday, 12 September 2016

Paralympics 2016 - Putting The Cat Out

Since the injection of ludicrous amounts of lottery cash Great Britain has become very good at cycling. Peddling knights Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins have a cupboard full of Olympic medals between them while others like Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny each have impressive collections also. No surprise then to see that GB are almost as strong in Paralympic cycling, or paracycling as it is known.

First to prove the point is Megan Giglia. She cruises to gold in the women’s 3000m pursuit for C1-C3 athletes. Giglia suffered a stroke which led to a bleed on her brain and left her with paralysis down one side of her body. In the final she catches the USA’s Jamie Whitmore barely half way into the race. This kind of thing is unheard of in the Olympic games, with athletes usually finishing a couple of second apart at the most. There’s a part of me that thinks that Giglia’s margin of victory speaks to a lack of depth in the event. This is the final, don’t forget. Whitmore is the next best athlete in the field and she can’t get near Giglia. Now Giglia could be just that good. Every once in a while an athlete comes around who is so utterly dominant that even those who would consider themselves world class in any other era are made to look ordinary. Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt in athletics, for example, or Michael Jordan in basketball or Muhammad Ali in boxing. I remain firmly sceptical about whether Giglia belongs in that company but she can only beat what is put in front of her. She’s a Paralympic champion. Perhaps we shouldn’t quibble.

However good Giglia is she’s got a long way to go before she matches the achievements of Sarah Storey. She’s going in the women’s C4 300m pursuit final against fellow Brit (I told you we were good at this) Crystal Lane. Her victory lands her a record 12th gold medal, making her the most decorated female Paralympian in British history as she goes past the mark set by Paralympic poster girl turned House Of Lords representative Tanni Grey-Thompson. When I started playing basketball Sarah Storey was called Sarah Bailey and was not a paracyclist but a swimmer. The first five of her gold medals were won in the pool across the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona and the 1996 event in Atlanta.

I’m not sure how I feel about this business of Paralympic athletes excelling at two disciplines. It has happened occasionally in the Olympic Games recently, witness Rebecca Romero’s conversion from rowing to cycling, but in general success in two sports seems to somehow belong to a bygone era. Except in rugby, where players switch codes as often as they change their pants. Or more often in the case of Sonny Bill Williams. But those two sports do at least require a similar skill set so you can see how a transition can be made. Unless your name is Sam Burgess. On the other hand Cycling and swimming have about as much in common as I do with Tom Hardy. Again I can’t shake the feeling that Storey’s ability to conquer both of these sports at Paralympic level could be seen as indicative of a lack of depth. However, the fact that she has represented England at the Commonwealth Games against non-disabled athletes tells you everything you need to know about Storey’s undoubted class.

Storey’s absence from the pool is more than compensated for in this session. First Ollie Hynd breaks the world record for the 400m freestyle in the S8 category for athletes who have lost one arm or both hands, or else have lower limb restrictions. There's catharsis in that for Hynd who missed out on a medal after finishing fourth in London 2012. His success is followed swiftly in the same event for women, where Stephanie Millward takes the bronze medal behind Australia’s Lakeisha Patterson and Jessica Long of the USA. Following them Harriet Lee takes silver in the women’s 100m breaststroke for SB9 athletes, those with minimal physical impairments. Holland’s Lisa Kruger takes the gold. Lee’s swim is a personal best, which is just about all you can ask for from any athlete competing at this level.

From the pool it is back out to the track where one of the Paralympics’ biggest names is about to enter the fray. Jonnie Peacock was a star of London 2012, winning gold in the men’s T44 100m. T44’s have a single leg amputation below the knee or else they have the ability to walk but with moderately reduced function in one or both legs. Peacock is in the former camp (yes, they all sit around lighting fires and singing boy scout songs) and he’s back to defend his title. He first needs to negotiate the qualification heat, which he does in a time of 10.81 seconds. It’s a Paralympic record but Jonnie’s not getting carried away, declaring himself ‘reasonably happy’ with his run. All of which may seem a little understated but I can relate to it. I’ve never felt more than ‘reasonably happy’ with anything in my life. Mostly I veer between absolutely bloody outraged and utterly defeated. There again, I’ve never broken a Paralympic record. Nor, presumably has Sammi Kingman who we last saw trailing in the wake of China’s Zhou on her way to a world record in qualification for the women’s T53 100m final. The final is a similar story, only Sammi doesn’t trail in second behind Zhou and instead is beaten into a quite medal-less fifth place. Disappointing perhaps, but you get the feeling that Sammi’s time is coming.

Channel 4 are like my cat. They are never happy in one place. Just when you think they have settled on something they are metaphorically waiting by the back door for you to let them outside for a metaphorical dump. And so it is with great swiftness that they again leave the track and drag us back into the pool for the denouement of the Bethany Firth/Jessica Applegate story we started to sit in on yesterday. To recap, Firth won the heat comfortably while Applegate became a little tearful at her performance despite having qualified for the final easily enough. The final goes the way we expect it to for Firth as she takes the gold in this 100m backstroke for S14 athletes with intellectual impairments which cause difficulty assessing patterns or sequences. Happily there is some relief in Applegate’s achievement as she picks up the bronze medal that will hopefully obliterate her earlier disappointment and so spare her from becoming over-emotional in her post-swim interview. Phil Jones will have to save the popcorn for another day.

There’s time to see another swimming medal as Andrew Mullen takes bronze in the 200m freestyle for S5 athletes, those with short stature or paraplegia. He’s beaten by the impressive Brazilian Daniel Dias much to the delight of the Rio crowd, and the American Roy Perkins much to the chagrin of much of the rest of the world. We don’t stick around because the cat wants letting outside again, taking us back to the track where Georgina Hermitage goes in the T37 100m heats. This category is for athletes with coordination impairments, but there seems little wrong with Georgina’s as she romps through to the final by equalling the world record of 13.39. Her start seems suspiciously false but none of the officials seem in any way alarmed by it.

T38 athletes are slightly different again in that they may have cerebral palsy in addition to further coordination problems. In this class Olivia Breen finishes 4th in her 100m heat, but makes it through as a fastest loser after a nervous wait. While Breen is waiting, Sophie Hahn and Kadeena Cox make it through to the final for GB, Hahn by winning the heat in yet another Paralympic record and Cox as the runner-up. Cox is another athlete who excels at two Paralympic sports and will spend large parts of the following day at the velodrome trying to add to GB’s gold rush. Cox explains her decision to compete in two sports in quite sobering terms, telling us that her multiple sclerosis could prevent her from participating in any sport at any level four years from now, so why not cash in now while the going is good? Well, when you put it like that, Kadeena.

We end in the pool and rather shockingly on this day of so much success for British athletes with a surprise defeat. We are all but promised that Jonathan Fox will carry off the gold medal in the men’s 100m for S7 athletes with limited leg function or who are missing a leg or parts of both legs. Fox broke the world record a month ago but it holds no truck with Ukraine’s Ievgenii Bogodaiko who snatches gold by a margin of 0.23 seconds;

“I wasn’t really expecting to come second in that event.” Observes a clearly shaken Fox, although suggestions that he will now turn his attentions to paracycling appear premature.

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