David Weir’s marathon dream ended by puncture as Johnboy Smith wins gold

Sport

David Weir has won just about everything in his 22-year career: eight London Marathons, six world championship titles, six Paralympic gold medals, but never a Commonwealth Games marathon. He has one Commonwealth medal, a gold in the 1500m at Glasgow in 2014 and was hellbent on winning a second to go with it. He is 43 and knew this might be his last chance to do it.

Seventy minutes into the race, it became clear he was going to. Weir had a 90-second lead over the field, with six miles or so to go. And that’s when his wheelchair’s left tyre burst.

“Oh no,” he said as he slowed and drifted over to the side of the road. Soon after his teammate, Johnboy Smith, had passed him. Smith, 32, called out to ask Weir what had happened and swore out loud when he found out. “I didn’t want to win by default,” Smith said.

He fancied he could catch Weir, and was annoyed that he had been robbed of the chance to make a race of it. Behind him, Weir ended up coming in seventh, 24 minutes after Smith. He got a hell of an ovation when he finished. “Where I come from,” he said, “you don’t give up.”

Weir wasn’t sure how it happened, he hadn’t hit anything and they were new tyres, too. He was left cursing himself. He never carries spares, worried it would be a jinx. “But the last few weeks I just had this gut feeling that something like this would happen. I even told my wife that I might take a spare with me, I brought the CO2 canisters and everything, and all week I was asking myself: ‘should I take it?’”

On the start line, Weir said, he was still looking in his kitbag asking himself whether or not to take the equipment with him. He decided not to. “I should have gone with my gut.”

He was convinced that he had enough of a lead to make the change and get back in the race. “Even if John had caught me I could have made it a sprint finish.” He was utterly dejected.

Weir has spoken frankly about how badly he has suffered with depression in the past, especially after the Rio Paralympics in 2016. He had a bad time at the Tokyo Games last year and had clearly invested a lot in the idea of winning here. “I’m feeling despair,” he said, “and I’ve never felt despair in a race before.”

In its way, Smith’s victory was a reminder of everything Weir has achieved in his career. Smith, a Traveller, was paralysed at 16 when he was shot in the back by a farmer who was wrongly convinced he was poaching from him. The farmer was convicted of inflicting grievous bodily harm.

Smith started competing in weightlifting, then switched to throwing events after he was inspired by the London Paralympics in 2012. Then he decided to change again to wheelchair racing. He wasn’t sure how to start so typed “where does David Weir train?” into Google and went from there.

He ended up at the Weir Archer Academy, which Weir runs with his coach, Jenny Archer. Weir took one look at Smith and told him he needed to lose four stone and that he should come back in six months if he was serious. Smith did and they have been training and competing together ever since.

“I’ve had a lot of support, don’t get me wrong,” Smith said, “But I’m a working-class nobody. I haven’t got a gym membership, I train in a single garage in the back of my garden with a leaky roof and a set of rusty dumb-bells. But I’ve got a gold medal around my neck. Impossible is nothing. Believe that. Aim high, dream big, it can be done. I’m proof.”

Behind Smith, Scotland’s Sean Frame won the silver medal and England’s Simon Lawson earned bronze. England’s Eden Rainbow-Cooper won the silver in the women’s event, behind Australia’s Madison de Rozario.

The crowds were out in force for all of them, which felt like a testament to the effect Weir’s performances at London 2012 have had on para-sport in this country.

“Do not write off David Weir,” Smith said. “He is not an old man, he is a supreme athlete. If Her Majesty the Queen is watching or listening, give him a knighthood. He deserves to be Sir David Weir.”