Ireland Rio hero Jason Smyth has no regrets over raising Windsor Park snub
Northern Ireland's most successful Paralympian, Jason Smyth, has insisted he does not regret speaking out over his Windsor Park snub - despite becoming involved in a social media storm and being blasted by the Northern Ireland football fans.
In an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the 29-year-old also revealed he will attend Northern Ireland's home friendly against Croatia on November 15, having talked to the Irish Football Association which admitted to the Eglinton athlete that it had been an 'oversight' not to invite him to be part of a celebration at Windsor's official opening last month.
Sprinter Smyth caused fierce debate when he questioned why he and fellow Team Ireland Paralympic hero, Belfast-born Michael McKillop, had not been asked to take part in a 'Lap of Legends' at the stadium, involving local sports, television and music stars.
He sparked the controversy after Northern Ireland's Team GB Paralympic gold medallists, Kelly Gallagher and Bethany Firth, participated in the event at the new 18,500 capacity stadium ahead of a World Cup qualifier against San Marino.
Smyth tweeted that only in Northern Ireland does "the colour you wear mean more than what you achieve", tagging Sinn Féin's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in the tweet, asking: "Do you think we will ever move on?"
Smyth's comments hit the headlines and, while he received praise in some quarters for highlighting the issue, he also faced condemnation from fans accusing him of being 'bitter' and saying he had brought politics into football.
It reached the stage where his American-born wife Elise couldn't bear to look at what some people had posted about her husband.
For the Irish FA - heavily criticised for excluding Smyth and McKillop - it was a public relations nightmare.
They said they did not mean to cause "any offence to Jason or anyone else", adding that the T13 five-time Paralympic champion would be welcome at Windsor in the future.
Following discussions between both parties, Smyth will be cheering Northern Ireland on against the Croatians next Tuesday, returning to the stadium for the first time since he was at secondary school, having spent the majority of his adult life away from home to pursue his successful athletics career.
"The IFA have offered me tickets to go to a game so I'm going to Northern Ireland versus Croatia," stated Smyth, who last week was given a civic reception in Londonderry to mark his achievements.
"The IFA phoned me about the situation.
"They said they realised I had achieved great things as an athlete and added that it was an oversight on their part. They also said there were a limited amount of spaces for people to be invited.
"It's been a few weeks since I had the conversation but I'm pretty sure they did apologise, saying they didn't mean to offend me in any way.
"To be honest, I wasn't offended that I wasn't there.
"It was more a case of asking the question why I wasn't, because I thought it was a legitimate question. Others did too."
Since winning his first Paralympic gold medals in 2008, Smyth, whose vision is affected by Stargardt's disease, has become a heroic figure in Northern Ireland - but the Windsor Park affair led to him suffering online abuse for the first time.
"It kicked up a bit of fuss but so many people got away from the point that I was making," said Smyth, dad to one-year-daughter Evie. "People started making it about whether I supported Northern Ireland and how often I went to games, but that was never my point.
"I was specifically referring to the Paralympic athletes.
"There were four of us from Northern Ireland who won gold medals.
"My question related to only Bethany and Kelly being invited to take part, and myself and Michael not being invited, and whether it was about who we competed for, because I could see no other difference in our achievements.
"It was nothing more than asking that specific question.
"It was the first time in my life that I had abuse on Twitter and it felt like some people hated me, but I had no regrets asking the question.
"After a while I stopped reading what was directed at me on Twitter.
"My wife told me she couldn't look at it anymore either because of the bad messages.
"I wouldn't say that I was hurt by it, but I stopped looking because some started taking it down a route I didn't want to go down."
Smyth explained: "I don't see myself as competing for one side of the community or the other.
"When I'm competing I want to do well for everyone in Northern Ireland and Ireland."
Smyth, who lives in Dunmurry, added: "People were saying that I don't go to Northern Ireland games, but that doesn't mean that I don't want the team to do well.
"Someone went back through my Twitter account to a message I had written in something like 2011 when I had said 'come on the Republic' before a game.
"It just got silly.
"I like to see both Northern Ireland and the Republic doing well. I love to see anyone from home being successful.
"Just because I don't go to games doesn't mean that I'm not checking out the scores and how Northern Ireland are doing in the group table."
On going to Windsor next week, Smyth, in training for next year's World Championships in London, added: "I don't want to make a big deal about it.
"I'm just looking forward to seeing a good game and hopefully a Northern Ireland win.
"I haven't been at Windsor since secondary school when I went with some friends.
"That's because I have been away most of the time and only moved back here recently."
The Eglinton man came first in the 100m T13 final at the Rio Games earlier this year with a time of 10.64 seconds, earning him the fifth Paralympic gold medal of his career.
Smyth won two gold medals at the 2012 London games in the T13 100m and 200m, matching his tally for the 2008 games in Beijing.