If professionalism and nationalism pose a challenge to the ideals of the Olympic Games, the Paralympics can be said to uphold them. Contested by the physically disabled and mentally impaired, these athletes embody the sentiments of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics.
"The important thing is not winning but taking part," he said. "What counts in life is not the victory but the struggle; the essential thing is not to conquer but to fight well."
For most of the handicapped athletes taking part in the 2012 Paralympics that opened in London last night, these words sum up their achievement in winning selection to be there, let alone in competing at the highest level. To be sure, there will be fierce competition and drug-testing, and some cheats are likely to be caught. But the Paralympics remain truer to De Coubertin's ideals than the commercial and nationalistic culture of Olympics competition on show earlier this month.
They had their origins in the 1948 International Wheelchair Games organised by Ludwig Guttmann, a German-born doctor, to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics. Guttmann, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939, advocated using sports therapy to enhance the quality of life for people injured or wounded during the second world war. The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome, in 1960.
The Paralympics have not been without scandal. The most infamous could have cost the youngest member of Hong Kong's team of 28 athletes, 15-year-old swimmer Kelvin Tang Wai-lok, his chance to compete in events for the mentally handicapped. These were dropped when Spain was found to have won the basketball in Sydney in 2000 with a team that faked their handicaps. They were restored only this year.
Kevin's triumph over mild mental impairment is an example of the founder's ideals, for the Paralympics are about much more than medals. They are a reminder of what disabled people are capable of and that, given equality and respect, they can contribute no less to society than anyone else. We wish Kevin and his teammates every success.