Blade runner Alex Lee's extraordinary para athletics feats played out in woefully empty stadium in Dubai

Alex Lee
Alex Lee is a former Ireland Under-17 footballer

Alex Lee scoffs at the idea he is an inspiration. In his own simple words: “I just get up and do what I have to do.”

The former Ireland Under-17 footballer was not prepared to wallow in self-pity after breaking his leg in a regulation tackle which culminated in an amputation below the knee. So on Friday he became Ireland’s first blade runner to compete at a World Para Athletics Championships and he returns for the T64 100m heats on Sunday.

In his eyes, he is just an ordinary person making the best of the situation he has been dealt. He just happens to be doing extraordinary things in the process.

There are countless others competing in Dubai. Take British Army veteran Luke Sinnott, whose sights are set on the T63 long jump podium after losing both his legs serving his country in Afghanistan.

Or New Zealand’s Lisa Adams, who was born with cerebral palsy and, only after watching her sister Valerie compile two Olympic and four world shot put titles, decided to turn her life around from being a smoker and “little bit of a drinker” to claim a maiden world T37 shot put title on Saturday.

Enthralling stories, but seemingly not enough to capture much attention here in the gaudy capital of glitz, glamour and endless traffic jams.

The World Para Athletics Championships has consistently seen empty seats in Dubai Credit: afp

Tickets are not available to buy online and the stands have been woefully empty during the first few days of competition. When Olivia Breen celebrated Britain’s only medal – a T38 long jump bronze – won on Saturday, she had an audience consisting solely of fellow team members and their families.

Sadly, that tends to be the way in para sport and there is a grudging level of acceptance among many athletes that the status quo has simply returned after the unprecedented success of London 2017, when 305,000 tickets were sold during the championships.

“At the able-bodied World Championships [in Doha last month], they were discouraged by empty stands because they’ve never had the small crowds before,” said Britain’s double world champion Sammi Kinghorn, who competes in a wheelchair after her father accidentally crushed her while driving a forklift truck.

“We’ve had that before. We went to Doha [in 2015] and it was just as bad. We had to deal with that. I’m just grateful I’ve got an event and get to race.”

It is something Lee, for obvious reasons, never envisaged he would be part of. Just three years ago the nippy winger, who played more than 100 times in the Irish second tier, went into a 50/50 challenge and came out with “my leg pointing one way and my ankle the other way”.

He expected to be ruled out for a few months, but six weeks and 14 operations later he left hospital in a wheelchair with half of his leg amputated.

When he started running early last year, he had no concept of representing his country, primarily because he had no idea it was even an option.

“I didn’t even know stuff like this existed,” said Lee, 30. “I just wanted to run to go out, clear the head and get my fitness back up again. Then I got the bug, but I didn’t realise that some day I would get to this level.

“I would have small goals all the time to help me get back to normal. Para athletics has given me a focus to train consistently: to get up in the mornings, go to the gym and push myself as hard as I can.”

That sense of renewed focus is something Adams, 28, can relate to. It seems bizarre that she never considered trying shot put prior to 2017 given her sister Valerie had become the dominant figure globally in that discipline. “Shot put was just Val’s thing,” she says, by way of simplistic explanation.

Two years on and with Valerie coaching her from the sidelines, Adams blew away her rivals to break her own world record with a throw of 14.80m in winning gold on Saturday morning.

“You can’t really have a better coach – she knows a little bit about the shot,” said Adams of Valerie, who has just resumed training for the Olympics after maternity leave. “She’s done it for a little bit of time... like 20 years.

“We are really good at keeping things professional and then we can be sisters elsewhere.”

Having won just one medal on each of the opening three days of competition in Dubai, the British team will be expecting a bumper haul on Sunday. Maria Lyle, Kyron Duke and Aled Davies are all favourites for gold, while Hannah Cockroft and Kare Adenegan look set for an epic battle for the T34 100m title.