IN the age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, one of our most successful local sports stars reckons that, if he stood in the centre of Belfast, the vast majority of passers by wouldn’t know who he was.
That’s the view of Michael McKillop, who recently starred in the ‘More Than Sport’ promotional video released by Paralympics Ireland.
The aim of the campaign is two-fold. Promote Paralympic sport and help the athletes raise funds ahead of this summer’s Games in Rio.
“It is a campaign, basically, to raise funds for athletics to go to Rio,” explained McKillop.
“It is a real issue with budget cuts and things down South.
“They created this campaign to showcase Paralympic sport within Ireland and to show that it is not just about the medals.
“It is not about taking part in sport – there is more to the athletics who compete in Paralympic sport than just their disability.”
Speaking about the launch of the campaign, CEO of Paralympics Ireland, Liam Harbison added: “More Than Sport is a new awareness and fundraising initiative we’ve launched this year as we prepare for the Rio 2016 Games.
“Over the coming weeks and months we will be bringing you more, as we take you behind the scenes to meet these athletes, hear their stories and come behind them to support them all the way to Rio. It’s an extremely exciting and inspirational campaign.”
McKillop hopes the ad campaign will help boost the profile of the athletics heading to Rio.
Yet, the middle distance runner admits that more is needed to put Paralympic sport on a par with able-bodied sport.
“That is the major factor,” said McKillop.
“I am quite lucky, I have been successful for such a long time, people now my name.
“With regards to sponsorship and people being aware of who I am. . . I would say if I was to stand in the centre of Belfast city, 95 per cent of the people wouldn’t know who I am.
“If you put that into context with someone like Paddy Barnes or Michael Conlan, everyone would be able to pick them out right away.
“I think that there are athletes who will be going to the games in Rio and nobody knows who they are.
“For us to come back with medals . . . those medals will be sought after even more.
“I will admit, Paralympic sport still isn’t on the same level as able-bodied sport publicity-wise. I understand that.”
A native of Ballymena, McKillop now resides in Glengormley, North Belfast.
Given his high-profile, he feels obliged to help promote the work of Paralympics Ireland but McKillop also stressed that the satisfaction gained from winning medals doesn’t compare to the joy of representing his country on the world stage.
“I am going to my third Paralympic Games, I have been there and done that,” added McKillop.
“I have won every medal that I can and I have broken every record I can. When I step up to that start line, I am not just representing Paralympics Ireland, I am representing every single person who walks along the streets of Belfast or Dublin. That’s why I do it. It isn’t just for success.”
McKillop will be one of Team Ireland’s main medal hopes for the Paralympic Games this summer having won gold at Beijing (800m) and London (800m and 1500m).
However, the 26-year-old insists he doesn’t feel under any additional pressure to deliver as he continues his preparations for Rio.
“There is pressure on me for every single race I go into,” said McKillop.
“I probably put more pressure on myself regarding my own performance because I have had to live with that expectation my whole life.
“The only expectation I can fail on now is my own expectation.
“I am going to my third Games, so I know what it is all about.
“The way I look at it, going into major races is that it is just another 400-meter track.
“It is just like the Mary Peters Track, the only difference is it is in a hotter climate and there is 70,000 people watching you. That doesn’t bother me.”
Training has been stepped up recent weeks for McKillop has he goes in search of a fourth gold medal.
Having been plagued by injuries for the past couple of seasons, he is hoping for a clean run through to the Rio Games this time around.
“The last three years have been really disappointing with injuries,” said McKillop.
“This year, we have had to take a slowly-slowly approach.
“We are now into the seventh week of training and it is starting to pick up.
“I have done five weeks of intense sessions at least once a week.
“It is a big change – my body is finding it easier. But I think when you get that consistency, your body can adapt.
“All I want to do is push myself to my limit so that I can be as successful as I can.
“At this moment in time, I am nowhere near where I was two years ago. It will come.
He added: “It is a team effort. I am there to do the hard work but there is a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes to keep me fit, make sure I have the right diet, sleep patterns and everything.
“I have got five months to prepare. My team have everything set-up in terms of what we are going to do right up to the day that I race.”
With a bit of luck, McKillop will return from Rio with his reputation enhanced and his status confirmed as one of Ireland’s greatest ever Paralympians.
Maybe then, he’ll be recognised on the streets of the city he now calls home.