Oscar Pistorius

London ready to stage biggest, best, most integrated Paralympics yet

London prepares to welcome the world again, but this time it will be athletes with disabilities who will be the focus of attention

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 5:08am


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The world's top athletes with a disability, including "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius, converge on London this week for what organisers say will be the biggest and most high-profile Paralympics in the Games' 52-year history.

A record 4,200 athletes from 166 countries will be in the British capital, with the 12-day Games a near sell-out and expected to be watched by an estimated global television audience of four billion people.

Britain is considered the birthplace of the Paralympic movement, after second world war veterans with spinal injuries competed in archery events at Stoke Mandeville in southern England in 1948, 12 years before the first official Games in Rome.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said that history, a desire to see more elite sport after a successful Olympics, increased media coverage and sponsorship have combined to drive up interest and awareness.

"There's a fantastic buzz in the air, waiting for it to kick off and people talking about it," IPC president Philip Craven said. "This will be my sixth Paralympics as president. It's not just because I'm back in my own country but everyone is so excited," added the 62-year-old Briton, a five-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball and swimming.

Part of that buzz comes from the previous Games in Beijing four years ago, where China set an impressive standard to follow, he added. "I think when [President] Hu Jintao in early 2006 declared that the Paralympics were equal to the Olympics they really were," Craven said.

"We were very pleased with the way the Chinese took to Paralympic sport. They had programmes explaining the different sports and we had great coverage there.

"But what [British host broadcaster] Channel 4 have done, they have taken a very fresh look at it, which has been exciting and ground-breaking, pushing those boundaries. Because it's brand new, even we at times have had to catch up."

Channel 4, whose powerful Paralympics trailer Meet the Superhumans has won widespread praise, are planning what they say are an "unprecedented" 150 hours of rolling coverage on multiple platforms over the 12 days of competition.

After the Olympics ended on August 12, the broadcaster even ran adverts cheekily saying: "Thanks for the warm-up."

Beijing did much to raise the Games' profile. The previous hosts won 211 medals, including 89 gold, and will be looking to replicate that success. But challenging them will be the current hosts, who came third in the Olympics medal table, galvanising wide support for the Games across the country and lifting a national mood hit by lingering economic woes.

Team GB have been set a minimum target of 103 medals from at least 12 different sports - one better than in Beijing - and to match their second-place finish four years ago.

For the home team, hopes are highest for athletes like Jonnie Peacock, who in June set a new T44 100m record of 10.85 seconds and is expected to challenge South Africa's Pistorius for gold in the showpiece track event.

With Pistorius' long-standing rival Jerome Singleton, of the United States, and a host of other lightning-fast sprinters likely to line up in the final, organisers even predict that all eight runners could dip under 11 seconds.

Among the wheelchair racers, Britain's David Weir, the T54 800m and 1,500m champion four years ago, is set to renew his rivalries with Australia's Kurt Fearnley and Swiss world record holder Marcel Hug.

In the pool, Ellie Simmonds has become a poster girl for the Games after winning two golds in Beijing aged just 13.

But like Pistorius - the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympics' biggest star - there are other big names.

South African swimmer Natalie du Toit is retiring after a decade at the top, while eight-time swimming gold medallist Matthew Cowdrey needs just three more golds to surpass athlete Tim Sullivan to become Australia's most successful Paralympian.

London will also see veteran medallists like shooter Jonas Jacobsson, dressage specialist Lee Pearson and Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer going for gold again alongside first-time athletes from smaller nations.

Now 47, Sweden's Jacobsson has competed in eight Paralympics and has 16 golds; Pearson, of Britain, has won gold at every Games since Sydney 12 years ago; while Vergeer won in 2000, 2004 and 2008 and is unbeaten in over 450 matches.

The US Virgin Islands will have their first ever Paralympian in the shape of rider Lee Frawley, while North Korea make their debut in the competition with swimmer Rim Ju-song.

Some 200 athletes with intellectual disabilities will also compete for the first time since Sydney and a scandal involving the eligibility of Spain's gold medal-winning basketball team, many of whom were found to have no physical or intellectual impairment.

And while every athlete has as much determination to overcome adversity as talent and skill, few have as remarkable a backstory as Martine Wright, who lost her legs in the 2005 suicide attacks in London - a day after the city was awarded the Games.

She will be a member of Britain's sitting volleyball team.

London organising committee chairman Sebastian Coe has repeatedly maintained that the Paralympics and the Olympics are two equal parts of the same event. "We want to change public attitudes towards disability, celebrate the excellence of Paralympic sport and to enshrine from the very outset that the two Games are an integrated whole," he said.

With an increased profile and top-class competition, Craven said "the future of the movement is looking very good", leaving room for expansion for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Two new sports are planned for Rio - para-canoe and para-triathlon (swimming, cycling/handcycling, wheelchair) - while para-snowboarding is coming in for Sochi and talks are on for introducing para-bobsleigh in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

"Over the last 10 years, the Paralympic movement has moved from being a disability sport organisation to a sports organisation.

"In doing that, we may even have redefined the concept of sport for all," Craven added.

"We really do have a good Games in an incredible festival of sport - and people like it. You will see the sadness and excitement there."