Jason Smyth: Irish sporting hero blazing his own trail

The pioneering runner is inspiring young athletes to follow in his very fast footsteps

We were off recovering last weekend, and spent Saturday night camped beneath the diamond sky at one of my favourite spots along the old JB Malone trail – better known as the Wicklow Way. This being the pioneering John James Bernard Malone, who more than anybody else in this country paved the way for gentle hill-walking and mountain adventure and with that encouraged the next generation to follow in his footsteps.

It's easy to forget there was a time not long ago when this sort of thing wasn't popular or even recommended. Indeed, Malone was probably before his time. He was born in Leeds in 1913 to Dublin parents; the family later moved to the Rathgar Road within view of the Dublin Mountains where as a late teenager his natural curiosity and innate sense of adventure soon had him exploring the old paths and ruins around places such as Montpelier Hill and Cruagh and Glendoo.

Malone joined the Irish Army during the war and worked in intelligence, his skills in cartography soon distinguishing him in that field and also in the series of hill-walking articles he began writing for the Evening Herald in 1939, which took in previously unfashionable parts of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains he already knew and loved so well.

His idea for a long, way-marked trail in Wicklow had taken root decades before it got the backing of Cospoir, better known these days as Sport Ireland, in 1979. The sports body had only then begun to recognise the benefits of such outdoor activity. The first 32km section of the Wicklow Way, from Marlay Park to Luggala, opened in 1980, the second 95km leg continuing down to Clonegal in Co Carlow two years later, and the rest is Irish hill-walking history.


It was around lunchtime on Sunday when, very close to the JB Malone memorial stone which overlooks Lough Tay (one of his favourite spots along the old trail), the mobile phone signal returned, and my Twitter feed lit up with tributes to Jason Smyth, including action replays of his incredibly close win just minutes earlier over Algeria's Skander Djamil Athmani in the T13 100 metres at the Tokyo Paralympics. Beijing, London, Rio, Tokyo: the World's Fastest Paralympian, still undefeated in 17 years.

It made for suitable conversation along the next section of the old trail, Smyth not just a pioneering athlete on the Paralympics stage – unquestionably going where no sprinter has gone before – but who more than anybody else in this country paved the way for the sort of success witnessed in other events in Tokyo, not least gold medal winners Ellen Keane in the swimming and Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal in tandem cycling.


Perhaps more than that Smyth, and possibly Smyth alone, has helped break down the distance between Olympics and Paralympics perceptions, on and off the track, not just in terms of what it takes to succeed. That his winning tally now includes six Paralympic gold medals, another six European gold medals, plus his eight at the World Championships (including one indoors, from 2005), is by any standards unique in Irish sport. That he's gone unbeaten in Paralympics events for 17 years going back to his first European Championship gold in Espoo in Finland in 2005 is a model of the sporting consistency only the very best can even aspire towards.

In other ways, on and off the track, Smyth does have limits: as a young child he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a hereditary degenerative visual impairment, which by now has effectively taken away 90 per cent of his central eyesight.

Not that Smyth ever viewed that as limiting his athletic potential. Indeed, the first time I met him, a Derry schoolboy winning an Irish schools sprint double in Tullamore back in 2006 in the colours of Limavady Grammar School, Smyth boldly declared that he wanted to be a world-class sprinter who happened to have a visual impairment, not the other way around. Nothing in the years since has changed that perception of himself.

When it came to identifying his sporting talent, Sport Ireland were first in line; back in 2006, when Smyth was still at school, they awarded a contract category grant, the highest possible, worth €40,000. He's benefited from an early and timely investment in other ways, his first coach Stephen Maguire always of the opinion too he wanted Smyth to be respected first and foremost as an athlete, not a Paralympic athlete.

There must have been times this year when his injury-riddled preparations might have hinted at ducking out of Tokyo, preserving his unbeaten record in the process. Instead, though he turned 34 earlier this summer, the father of two showed no fear or indeed sign of slowing down. Faster, higher, stronger in one sense perhaps; smarter, wiser, steadier in another.

Limited vision

He’s been asked many times how his limited vision affects his physical performance, and he’s been honest about it, saying he doesn’t know because that’s the only way he’s ever known how to run. His lifetime best over the 100m, coming in able-bodied competition, was the 10.22 he clocked in 2011, a year after Smyth became the first Paralympics athlete to compete at the 2010 European Athletics Championships in Barcelona; that still ranks him the second-fastest Irish man in history, after Paul Hession’s national record of 10.18, set in 2007.

In 2012 Smyth set himself the target of becoming the first Paralympics athlete to also qualify for the Olympics. The A-standard for London was 10.18 seconds; after several efforts, he got his best down to that 10.22 – the proverbial width of his vest. That he’s repeatedly set himself new challenges and met fresh goals over the years can’t be easy when so much of it is done far beyond the spotlight of places like Tokyo. Smyth is also largely self-coached these days too, calling on his now vast experience which over the years saw him train with one of the world’s best sprint groups under US coach Lance Brauman in Florida – always putting himself in the best position to succeed.

It may not necessarily bother him that the Paralympics and surrounding events will always be a quadrennial theme and that come Sunday the entire stage will go largely quiet again until Paris 2024. Just don’t confuse that with the time and effort it still takes in between to succeed, and even if it’s not entirely up to Smyth to remind us of that, when it comes to the Paralympics stage, no Irish athlete has done more to encourage the next generation to follow in his footsteps.