Paralympians can defend only half their titles
Two of Northern Ireland's greatest sporting stars have been left "disappointed and disheartened" after learning that they will only be able to defend HALF of their Paralympic titles in Rio 2016.
Middle distance runner Michael McKillop and sprinter Jason Smyth have become heroic figures, not just here, but around the world for their stunning feats on the track.
Such is their status they are considered standard bearers for the Paralympics, yet yesterday were shocked to discover that 50% of their events had been savagely cut from the Games to be staged in Brazil in three years' time.
Visually impaired Smyth from Eglinton created history in London 2012 by retaining the 100 and 200 metres in the T13 class which he had won in Beijing in 2008.
He was hoping to complete a unique triple double in the Paralympic Games in Rio, but in a wide range of changes made by IPC Athletics, the International Federation for para-athletics, Smyth's 200m class has been dropped from the schedule.
It means the 26-year-old, who is also hoping to qualify for the Olympics in 2016, will only be able to defend his 100m Paralympics crown in South America.
Glengormley man McKillop, who suffers from a mild form of celebral palsy, is in the same boat. He won the T37 800m title in Beijing and followed that up by winning it again and the 1500m in London where he was awarded the prestigious Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award for being the male athlete who best exemplified the spirit of the Paralympics. McKillop's 800m class has been removed leaving him with just the 1500m to defend.
All this comes after a recent successful World Championships for the pair when, competing for Ireland, they clinched double gold in their respective events.
The decisions by IPC Athletics also have a negative impact on Ballykelly's Sally Brown who competed in the T46 100m and 200m for Team GB in the Paralympics. Brown's 200m event has been dropped for Rio.
Across the globe last night Paralympians were slamming the changes made to ensure "a fair distribution of events across gender, impairment and event type'.
McKillop, 23, an inspiration on and off the track, revealed his own personal disappointment and sympathised with his good pal Smyth and gifted teenager Brown.
McKillop said: "It's very disappointing and sad for me. I'm still determined to go to Rio and win gold but not having the chance to retain both of the titles I won in London is disheartening.
"It's mind boggling really and I don't know what to think of it. I thought Paralympic sport moved on so far in London but for me this feels like a step backwards going to Rio in 2016.
"I also feel for Jason Smyth, the fastest Paralympian of all time, as he won't be able to do the triple double because of this ruling and Sally Brown who has also lost out. Even though Sally didn't win medals in London it was a breakthrough moment for her to compete. She is only going to get stronger so this will be disappointing for her too."
Bemused and dismayed by the decision, Smyth said: "Sometimes things happen that you just can't understand why!"
It is understood despite this blow, the funding of the Northern Ireland trio should not be affected, assuming they continue to race to their potential in forthcoming events.
IPC Athletics defended the changes, which were two years in the making after widespread consultation, saying there will be seven more events overall in Rio (177) than in London and a 22% increase in events for women.
Ed Warner, chair of IPC Athletics, said: "The Rio programme has greater gender equality, has a greater spectrum of events for classes and will help develop the sport alongside National Paralympic Committee athlete and education development.
"Through creating more competition opportunities we want to develop more athletes across more classes and, in turn, create a greater competitive field for each class.
"Our aim in announcing the medals programme more than three years prior to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games is to give countries and athletes plenty of time in advance to plan their road to Rio."