Not long after winning his sixth Paralympics gold medal in Tokyo last year, Jason Smyth weighed up his options and realised the risk of continuing is significantly higher than the reward.
By his own admission, Tokyo was his finest hour, Smyth winning an incredibly close final of the T13 100 metres at what was his fourth consecutive Paralympics – and at age 34, still unbeaten in Paralympic competition in 17 years.
Still the world’s fastest ever Paralympian too, Smyth has nothing left to prove, even with the 2024 Paralympics seemingly just around the corner, at which point however he will be 37. With six Paralympic golds, another six European gold, plus eight at the World Championships (including one indoors, from 2005), what would another medal even mean?
“There is nothing more to do,” Smyth gently agrees, “and the competition has got a lot closer, a lot tighter. But in that lies the challenge, [it] has made me even more aware of why I’m doing it. It makes the story an even better one.
“The reality is by going to Paris, the risk is significantly higher than the reward. You’ve much less room to get things wrong, and a greater need to get things right. I’d be open on that front, know that myself, I wouldn’t hang on just to drift.
“It’s only in hindsight that you can really reflect on these decisions being right or not. For me it won’t be until I get to Paris, and by that stage it might be too late, that’s being honest. So of course there’s a risk in that.
“Tokyo last year was positive in what we were able to get on top of some of the injury issues. I’ve been back training since the start of September, so I think where I am, and will be, is in a good place to run fast next summer, and certainly believe I can run faster than over the last couple of years. How will that play out? Nobody knows until it happens.”
Indeed Tokyo last year could have been different, Smyth forced to bring out his absolute best to beat Algeria’s Skander Djamil Athmani, the fastest qualifier, winning by .01 of a second, 10.53 to 10.54.
Smyth deliberately raced sparingly during 2022: with a World Paralympics Athletics in early July 2023, also in Paris, these next 12 months will tell a lot about his chances at his fifth consecutive Paralympics.
Home for the last few years is just outside Belfast, Smyth training between the Mary Peters track and Sports Institute Northern Ireland. These days he’s largely self-coached too, though perfectly open to advice from those around him.
“The focus this year was not racing for the sake of racing, but to take things block by block, not try to force anything, get through the winter. With that three-year cycle to Paris, everything just compresses. You also have to consider things like age, because you cannot be maxed out constantly, as you get older it’s much more of a balancing act.
“The team all inputs into what goes on, we’re all aligned together. The people close to me support me, and there’s an honest conversation with that team around me. If I was talking here not moving in the right direction, then maybe the question might be different.”
Speaking at the announcement of Aer Lingus as the official airline partner to Paralympics Ireland, Smyth was adamant he won’t be going to Paris for the trip, though his daughters Evie (6) and Lottie (4) may have different motivations.
“I know my girls are looking forward to Disneyland more than watching me. I think Paris being close to home they will be an incredible Games, the coverage I think will be better again, but I don’t think that’s enough of the motivation, when you’ve been to four already.
“It’s the opportunity, to try prove something even more. The hardest thing to do is come out in those situations, and get things right, but if you can get them right it cements even more all you’ve achieved. To me there’s something powerful about that.
“And that’s what Tokyo was. I do look back and think ‘how the heck did we get that right’, to pull it off in that manner, after all the injuries, that would be the number one of all I’ve achieved. And the reality is everyone just expected me to win, without really knowing everything, that’s even more pressure.”