We asked Heather Boyle to tell us in her own words about her recent working trip to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio…
I’m one of those lucky people who can honestly say that I love my job. At the best of times it’s pretty good, exciting, challenging and engaging, but having just returned from two weeks covering cycling at the Paralympic Games, I’m fairly sure my sense of professional well-being can’t be topped!
Heather (second from left) hard at work in the Main Press Centre
I’m the Communications Officer at Cycling Ireland, a role in which I’ve been working fulltime since January 2016, and a role that I’ve been covering on a part-time basis, along with other roles, since September 2009. Communications and Public Relations is something that has always interested me, the power of positive representation in the media and the notion of how people can be influenced by the way in which something is portrayed.
From September 5th – September 20th I worked as the cycling correspondent for Paralympics Ireland at the Games in Rio. This is a position I also held in London in 2012, so in many ways I knew what would be ahead of me, I knew what role entailed, the long hours, and the adrenalin buzz. I knew that the power of the Paralympic Games and the athletes involved would have a profound impact on how I view normal, how I view challenge and how I view human endeavour and accomplishment.
What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be blown away all over again.
Be under no illusion, the Paralympic Games are an elite Games with elite athletes who have dedicated four years and thousands upon thousands of hours for one goal; athletes who have already overcome massive challenges of their own to get to the start line, but who continue to push out the boundaries for themselves, other athletes and every single one of us day after day. I had the honour of interviewing and representing the phenomenal cycling team in the media platforms for the course of those two weeks.
The Paralympic Games have been in existence since 1948, and have been run two weeks after the Olympic Games at the same venue since 1988. While the Olympic Games always garner a huge amount of attention, the Paralympics has not always received the same recognition. Paralympics Ireland has done tremendous work to ensure that the athletes and sports are represented well in the media by building up a media team over the past two Games, including experts in sports who contribute to the daily press releases along with acting as information providers for the team of journalists and broadcast media who stream the stories and feeds back home to Ireland.
Since 2007 Paracycling has been administered by the UCI, and is one of just a number of sports that comes under the governing body of the able bodied section of the sport. This is something that not only makes me proud, but it also allows the Paracyclists a worthy platform in Cycling Ireland throughout the year alongside their able bodied counterparts, allowing them equal support in terms of media coverage in our own channels, generating equal respect; as should be the case.
In the Olympic/Paralympic Park there is a significant area set aside for the media; there’s a large building called the MPC (Main Press Centre) and another one called the IBC (International Broadcast Centre). The MPC was our base for the two weeks, we gathered there in the mornings, got our transport to and from venues from there, worked there and in the evenings everyone filed back in with stories from the days. There was also a food hall with fairly bland “Western” food, like cardboard pizzas and plastic cheese-cheese burgers; but we weren’t there for the food, we were there for the sport.
The Paralympics Ireland media team comprised of myself from Cycling Ireland, Trish Mayon, my counterpart in Swim Ireland, Anne McCarthy from Sport Ireland and Cliona Foley, a freelance journalist who has been working with Paralympics Ireland for the past year. John Fulham from Irish Wheelchair Association, who has competed in about a zillion Paralympics himself as a wheelchair racer was the main media lead there, and Mary McGuire managed our team and worked with RTÉ on providing amazing footage back to Ireland. Sinead Naughton is the Paralympics Ireland Communications & Events Director; she was based in Ireland working with RTÉ on the live show every evening. There was also a team of journalists from various media outlets and all in all it became one of the best teams on which I have ever worked.
The main role I had while there was to tweet the results from the Paralympics twitter account, push out medal results through the Paralympics Ireland app, interview the riders immediately after the event and write the press releases. Sure, that may not sound like a big day’s work – but with ten riders and seven bikes to attend to, the day gets pretty long. The more hidden side to the job, but perhaps the most effective, was the fact that I was the first port of call for all the journalists who were there and for those who were at home. When you are immersed in a sport you often don’t realise how much you actually know about that sport. You don’t really appreciate the bits and bobs that make up the sport, like what the difference between C1 and C5 is, you forget the relevance of knowing the personalities and quirks of each athlete, and how best to interview them, and these insights were something I was able to pass to other journalists, which they found useful when covering what was often for them a new sport.
We had some great days, “Winning Wednesday” will go down in Irish sporting history as the day when Ireland won four medals at the Paralympic Games – the Paracyclists won three of these in the Time Trials starting with a silver from Colin Lynch (C2), and swiftly followed with two gold medals from Eoghan Clifford (C3) and Katie-George Dunlevy & Eve McCrystal (B Tandem), this all took place in the Pontal region of Rio – a seaside town which had been transformed to an international cycling hub of activity for four days. Winning Wednesday was bookended by an earlier bronze medal from Eoghan in the C3 3km Pursuit on the track, and silver from the infectiously enthusiastic duo Katie and Eve in the B Tandem Road Race on Saturday.
Most of the riders from 2016
While everyone always remember and cherish the medals some of the most powerful moments for me came from other performances. When Declan Slevin, a 47 year old super inspiring man from Rosemount in Westmeath, finished the H3 Road Race in 9th place I cried. His race was 3 laps of a 15km course and at the first lap he lay in 10th place trailing the US rider by a minute, second lap he pulled level with him and on the finish line he powered home in 9th place about a minute clear. Everyone came to the Games with a goal – for Declan, new to high performance sport, this was a goal achieved. Declan is one of those people who has been dealt a life altering blow, having fallen from a tree 12 years ago causing him a spinal injury, he has spun a dark time right on its head and sat there at the finish line in Rio saying “If you told me 12 years ago that I would have ninth place in the Paralympic Games I would not have believed you for one second. I say to anyone lying in a bed in Dún Laoghaire hospital with a spinal injury that this is it – this is where you want to be [at a Paralympic Games]. I’ll never give up this sport.” Now if that doesn’t give you goosebumps I’m not sure what will!
Ciara Staunton was another first time Paralympian who treated the Rio Games as a warm up event for Tokyo, clocking up every experience she could. Peter Ryan and Marcin Mizgajski were another two riders who gave me a buzz. They were given a late call up to the team when the Russian team was suspended on account of the doping scandals. They took their opportunity by the scruff of the neck and went for it. For two lads thrown together a 12th place in the Road Race was nothing short of amazing! Of course this was on a day that Damien Vereker and Sean Hahessy blitzed the first half of the race, keeping the rest of the field at bay, causing so much excitement for myself and the rest of the media team in the mixed zone, two lads who performed amazingly in every event, but came home each day hungry for that elusive medal! It was also a race that was delayed by over an hour because of a fatal crash in the previous race, when Bahman Golbarnezhad broke his neck on the descent of the Grimali circuit, and died of a heart attack en route to the hospital. It is always so sad when we hear of the loss of a member of the cycling community, but being so close to it was very hard. My mind couldn’t help picturing him coming to the mixed zone after his own races on previous days, answering the same questions about what it meant to be a Paralympian, about how happy he was with his performance, and what kind of sacrifices he made to be there. I couldn’t help imagining how they would break it to his teammates, his family at home. Sometimes you hear about accidents like this and the severity of it doesn’t quite hit home, I think we all appreciated the impact of this tragedy.
When you are at the Games and are one of the first people to talk to the athletes after the Games you are aware that it is a huge privilege. The effort, the tension and the enormity of the moment means that you are always faced with raw emotion and often quite vulnerable athletes. As members of the Paralympic media team one of our key concerns was that the athletes would not feel overwhelmed by questions and would be comfortable enough to represent themselves well. For the past number of years Paralympics Ireland has provided media training for the athletes, and our media team was just another piece in the jigsaw puzzle, making sure that if they were too emotional we were a friendly face and they knew we were on their side in the mixed zone, the area where the print and broadcast media interviewed the athletes. We had nothing to worry about really, as the riders all were well prepped, and each one had such an amazing personality, it carried them through. Also the journalists were respectful, not because they were being patronising or gentle with the athletes, but because they were so impressed with the performances, with the racing and of course with the stories behind each person. A couple of times I acted as the liaison between the rider and those in the mixed zone, asking for a few extra minutes, allowing the riders to gather their thoughts, maybe wash away a few tears, sound off with their coach, before coming out to present themselves to the media.
Colin Lynch speaking to Heather and other reporters after his Silver medal win
The Paralympics are special; they are not just another major championship, while at the same time they are. For me there were a few moments where I realised why the hashtag #MoreThanSport was so genius. After winning a bronze medal in the C3 Pursuit, Eoghan Clifford was talking about the knee injury that he had been carrying. I knew about this injury and knew that Eoghan was by far the strongest and best rider in his field. Like with any other athlete I hoped that his injury would suddenly get better and he would be fine. It was only when he spoke about it more that I realised that this isn’t just an injury; it is part of his condition. Born with Carcot-Marie-Tooth Eoghan has a muscle degenerative condition that mostly affects his limbs from the knees/elbows down. With increasingly less muscle from his knee down the time trial position in the Pursuit and Time Trial puts his knee under a lot of strain. This is not any old injury; it is part of his condition. This is why he is competing at the Paralympic Games. Colin Lynch talks about how his new leg has made a big difference to his performance and after the Time Trial Peter Ryan collapsed at the side of the path with pilot Marcin Mizgajski collapsed further up the road, Peter being visually impaired couldn’t find Marcin for a minute. This is why these riders are competing at the Paralympic Games, but as a sport analyst, a commentator, a spectator you are watching the Games and you are watching sport, watching what people can do, not what they can’t and you are sold.
The Paralympics are where it’s at; in my opinion they are the greatest sporting event in the world. Rio was better than London, not because logistically it worked better, but because I dare you to watch a swimming race with Daniel Diaz in it and not dance alongside the 80+ year old women swaying rhythmically in time with the music as the Brazilian equivalent of Michael Phelps stomps home with Paralympic title after title. The warm welcome of the people took me by surprise; the pride they took in their city and sports was contagious. I don’t know about you, but I’m counting down to Tokyo!