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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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Letter from Rio: Record crowds and sporting theatre make Games a memorable experience

But we’re desperately hoping Ireland’s athletes can feed off the atmosphere and give us more to shout about over the next week.

– Ryan Bailey reports from Rio de Janeiro 

IT’S BEEN A slow burner, but finally these Paralympics Games have caught fire to such an extent that Saturday saw record numbers come through the Olympic Park gates.

2016 Rio Paralympic Games - Day Three Source: Andrew Matthews

A total of 167,000 spectators were in attendance, trumping the 150,000 on the busiest day of the Olympic Games last month with the Brazilian people embracing the Paralympics and supporting it in numbers.

Organisers can paint a pretty picture by proclaiming ticket sales figures but even they couldn’t have imagined such a response after just 12% were pre-sold a couple of short weeks ago.

For the first time since last Wednesday’s opening ceremony, there has been a real carnival atmosphere inside Barra’s Olympic Park and the venues scattered around this diverse city.

The success of Brazilian athletes has played a big role but so too has the accessibility of the Games to the people of Rio. Ticket prices were slashed before the competition got underway and this has been seen as a far more attractive option than the summer Games.

Even the Olympic Stadium, situated a 40-minute drive away in the neighbourhood of Engenho de Dentro, has seen crowds of upwards of 30,000 over the weekend and will continue to do so as the meet continues. The noise inside the Olympic Aquatics Stadium is deafening, too.

The weather has also helped. Over the course of the weekend the mercury has soared and yesterday temperatures peaked at a sweltering 35 degrees celsius. It was so warm volunteers were handing out iced bottles of water to spectators along the main thoroughfare and in any of the outdoor venues.

Rio Paralympics Source: Leo Correa

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Although the searing heat hasn’t exactly played into the hands of the Irish athletes. Many of them toiled on Monday, failing to produce a a performance they’re capable of and leaving a lot to be desired.

Let’s not beat around the bush, it has been a couple of uneventful days. The reality is that Ireland are in desperate need of a spark to reignite the team’s faltering Games.

After Jason Smyth, Eoghan Clifford and Michael McKillop got the team up-and-running over the weekend, Ireland’s pursuit of medals has hit a road block with the target of eight looking increasingly fanciful.

Of course there are still genuine medal hopes to compete, like teenager Noelle Lenihan and Cork’s Orla Barry, but then you’re left wondering where else will a podium finish come from, if at all.

While you can’t expect every athlete to produce their best performance on any given day, the results over the last few days have been disappointing. It’s not being critical for the sake of it but there is a danger of the Games petering out from an Irish point of view.

There is still along way to go and plenty of opportunities for further success but as the whole event is gathering momentum, Ireland want to feed off that rather than be hindered by it.

By this stage four years ago, the team had already won 10 medals on their way to a total of 16. Granted, the target was downscaled this year for a number of mitigating factors but you can’t help but get the feeling that we’re all waiting for something to happen out here; hoping, more than anything.

Nevertheless, the first week five days of competition have surpassed all expectations. There’s something truly unique about the Paralympics and if anyone thought it was a postscript to the ‘real’ Olympics then you clearly haven’t experienced, or even watched, what has happened here over the last few days.

These athletes are pushing boundaries, changing the perception of what is possible and leaving the thousands of people, some of whom are battling their own disability, who have come to witness this sporting extravaganza in complete awe.

2016 Rio Paralympic Games - Day Three Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

2016 Rio Paralympic Games Preview Package Source: Mike Egerton

But at the same time you cannot escape the reality of where we are. Tucked away in Barra da Tijuca, these Games are completely separated from the real world. This strip, with opulent hotels and shopping centres, is as far removed from the favelas and inescapable poverty as possible.

At the Opening Ceremony, President of the IPC, Sir Philip Craven, declared that the Paralympics will ‘surprise, inspire and change’ the Brazilian people. The first two certainly but the staging of these Games, along with the Olympics, will not change this city or country. There will be no legacy left beyond this man-made sporting complex.

Outside of it, the vast majority of locals don’t even bat an eyelid as to what is going on. To them, this circus will soon roll out of town and their lives, their struggles will continue on unchanged.

As somebody put it the other day, it’s like hosting a house party without actually being able to pay the rent.

Yet to their credit, organisers have put on a good show with limited resources. Their hands were tied with reduced budgets in the build-up and certainly there is some evidence of cutbacks within the Village itself; one of which is discontinued Wifi on the media shuttle buses. The outrage.

But it is on those buses, being ferried around the various venues dotted around the city, that you truly get a flavour for the real Rio de Janeiro. You may still be protected by scores of accompanying escorts and hundreds upon hundreds of armed soliders lining the streets, but at least it offers a reminder as to how far removed the striking images of this Games broadcast around the world are.

Yes, Rio is a truly spectacular city with the most incredible landscape but we’re not told about the widespread poverty or political unrest. You have to see it for yourself and being here it is unavoidable.

The IPC’s line is that ‘sport is now the story of the Games’ and this last few days would certainly suggest that to be the case. What has happened on the track or in the pool has helped overshadow all the problems off it.

Rio Paralympics Source: Leo Correa

Daniel Dias storming to gold in the S5 200m freestyle over the weekend was one of the highlights so far, with a partisan home crowd taking the roof of the Aquatics Centre with a deafening noise.

Similarly, at the Olympic Stadium, 19-year-old Petrucio Ferreira dos Santos became a national hero as he produced a late surge to win the T47 100m title in a world record time. Bearing witness to such moments of sporting theatre will live long in the memory of everyone in attendance.

As will the performances of Smyth and McKillop, who further enhanced their reputations as the dominant forces in their respective events. The raw emotion displayed by McKillop is a further indication of what these Games really stand for.

They’re going some way to being remembered for the right reasons by those part of the circus — let’s hope for further Irish success along the way too.

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Ryan Bailey

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