Rio Paralympics: blind running

9 September 2016

by Barney Cullum

Libby CleggLibby Clegg was the first member of ParalympicsGB to perform at Rio’s Olympics Stadium yesterday — and today she may become Britain’s first athlete to win gold on the track.

The Scottish sprinter has a deteriorating eye condition, Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, meaning she has only the slightest peripheral vision.

Libby Clegg running wearing blindfoldAs of this year she’s had to compete wearing a blindfold, running in the category for the most visually impaired athletes in elite sport, the T11 classification.

Clegg is one of the fastest sprinters in the world, and today’s she’ll take on the reigning champion, a Brazilian, on her rival’s home territory.

Terezinha GuilherminaBut Sao Paulo’s Terezinha Guilhermina is not Clegg's only opposition in the 100m. China’s Zhou Guohua qualified along with Clegg after a thrilling dead heat between the pair in yesterday’s preliminary round.

'I could feel her alongside me, and as a blind athlete you can never take anything for granted.

'Because of the way our qualification works, you have to win each round to be sure of getting through to the next phase.' — Libby Clegg

Both the semi-finals and the final itself take place today, at 3.42pm and 10.52pm (UK-time).

Clegg may be the world record holder over 200m, but Guilhermina has held the fastest time in the blue riband 100m distance since London 2012.

A likely showdown today could see the 12-second barrier broken by a female Paralympian for the first time.

'The opening round wasn’t my best race,' said Guilhermina, 'but I was breaking ice with the Paralympic Games.'

'When I’ve heard crowds cheering at other events I always liked to assume they’ve been cheering for me, even though the languages have not been Brazilian Portuguese. But today it was only my language I heard and so I knew the crowd were cheering for me — it was great!'

Interview translation was provided by Vagner Vargas, a member of Brazil’s Ministry of Sport.

Vargas gave me an insight into what drives Guilhermina, along with many of the Paralympians representing Brazil at their home games.

'Paralympians and other disabled people across Brazil do not like being seen as objects of pity, which often happens.'

Guilhermina expanded on this theme. 'The warmth and friendliness of strangers in Brazil compensates… but in general I can do almost anything.'

'The Paralympic Games can improve access for disabled people in Brazil, that is the main expectation we have for the Games. More than that though, it can change mentalities.'

To those who have followed their careers, Clegg and Guilhermina have already shown that nothing holds them back. Prime-time exposure tonight could bring their achievements into focus for a global audience.

Barney Cullum is a freelance journalist — covering the Games for a range of organisations — and is an external communications officer for Leonard Cheshire Disability. A version of this article is also appears on PosAbility.

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