On the maddest track David Weir has ever known, Georgina Hermitage coped with sweltering heat, a rogue insect and a classification controversy to win her second gold in the Paralympic Games.
Coughing and spluttering after her T37 400m final, Hermitage reckoned that she swallowed a fly halfway through her race on a sticky morning in Rio and it is unlikely that she was exaggerating given how many bugs were fluttering around the Olympic Stadium’s floodlights throughout the evening session, when Weir endured a second successive anti-climatic performance in a final and Libby Clegg claimed ParalympicsGB’s 11th athletics gold in the T11 200m.
Not even that unfortunate experience could derail Hermitage, however, as she scorched away from China’s Xiaoyan Wen and broke the world record in 1min 0.53secs. It was barely a contest. Wen took silver in 1mins 3.28secs, while Tunisia’s Neda Bahi helped herself to bronze in 1min 3.71secs.
That level of dominance is why Hermitage, whose cerebral palsy injury mainly affects the left side of her body, has heard insinuations that she is competing in the wrong classification. She sees a world record, she breaks it. It happened in the 100m final last week, it happened again yesterday and Hermitage will complete a hat-trick of golds if Britain win the 4x100m relay. Afterwards she insisted that she belongs in the T37 category.
The buildup to the Paralympics featured reports that some British athletes have been placed in the wrong classification, greatly enhancing their chances of winning medals. Bethany Woodward, who won silver in the T37 200m at London 2012, withdrew from the athletics programme after growing disillusioned with the system. “They’ve brought in people who are not like me in terms of disability, what’s the point?” she said.
Suspicious glances were shot in Hermitage’s direction, threatening to leave a persistent stain on her reputation.
The mercury had risen to 35 degrees by the middle of the morning in Rio – it was still boiling when Britain’s Hollie Arnold won F42 javelin gold with a world record throw of 43.01m – and Hermitage’s face was bright red by the time she stepped away from the track. The 27-year-old explained that while the heat relaxed the muscles on the left side of the body, the humidity made her uncomfortable. “My left side is really happy,” she said. “The rest of me wants to die.”
Then she tackled the doubters. Hermitage was asked if she felt insulted. “A little bit,” she said. “But people say things in the heat of the moment when they are upset. If anyone ever wants to talk to me about what happened I am an open book. I’ve got nothing to hide.
“It does sink through. You hear it and you block it out. They are doing the best they can with the classification process. It’s the IPC, not British Athletics – we just put athletes forward and they classify them. I’ve got the medical records to back it up. These people making these unfounded comments about my disability have never asked what’s wrong with me so how could they possibly know?”
“The reason my lactic threshold is high is because I work my arse off for it. I do about three sessions a week that are lactic-based so I can put in that performance. I would support any hemiplegic athlete who wants to run a fast 400 to get the long distance in now.”
The conditions were oppressive even after the sun went down and Weir felt uncertain on the track as he relinquished his grip on the T11 1500m final. “One minute it feels fast, the next it feels slow,” the 37-year-old said after finishing fourth.
The six-time Paralympic champion, who indicated that he could quit track wheelchair racing if he wins a medal in the 800m or the 4x400m relay, has had an uneven start here. After finishing sixth in the 400m final on Monday, the 37-year-old looked short of energy in the 1500m. Thailand’s Prawat Wahoram is the new owner of the title Weir won at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
Appearing in his final Paralympics, Weir denied that he has been affected by missing the birth of his third child on Sunday. “I’m more relaxed than ever because I know he’s here and I know he’s sound,” he said. “I’m a happy man.”
Clegg, whose guide is Chris Clarke, is a happy woman. The visually impaired Scot emphatically followed up her 100m triumph by clinching the 200m in 24.51secs.
There was a second table tennis gold for Britain when Rob Davies, a former rugby player who broke his neck in a collapsed scrum 11 years ago, secured a 3-1 win over South Korea’s Young Dae Joo in the class one final. Britain have won 34 golds and are second in the standings.