London 2012 Paralympics: A great leap forward
NEVER has there been an opportunity for the Paralympic movement to take such a great leap forward.
With Britain still bathed in the warm glow of a thrillingly successful Olympic Games, the world’s disabled athletes are now descending on these shores, hoping to share in, and contribute to, the phenomenon that is London 2012. The opening ceremony for the XIV Paralympics will be held on Wednesday, kick-starting 11 days of competition in which the country’s summer-long enthusiasm for sport will discover a new focal point. Returning to the country where it all began, this Paralympics will be the biggest and most high-profile in history, with the potential to transform, like never before, attitudes to disability.
The early signs are promising. Some 2.5 million tickets are expected to be sold. Channel 4
is to broadcast 500 hours of coverage. One poll, released last week, claimed that 55 per cent of British people planned to watch as much, if not more, of the Paralympic Games than they did of its Olympic equivalent. A global television audience of four billion is predicted. The athletes will be different, but (with a few alterations here and there) the venues and facilities will be more or less as they were for the Olympics. The athletes’ village, home to 10,000 of them last month, will this time accommodate 4,200 from 166 different countries, together with 4,725 officials, 1,800 wheelchairs and 22 assistance dogs. Ottobok, the “technical service provider”, has 14,000 tonnes of workshop equipment with which to maintain and repair the technology on which many disabled athletes are dependent.
It is a big, serious business for those taking part. If, as expected, the Great British public show it the same respect, there could be a seachange in the way disabled athletes – make that people – are perceived. They don’t want sympathy, or patronising references to their bravery. They want to be treated like every other athlete, like every other human.
Tanni-Grey Thompson once said that she yearned, more than anything, for the day when the media felt free to criticise a poor performance by a Paralympian. Hopefully by 9 September, when Coldplay are starring at the closing ceremony, we will have learned to do that, as well as answer a few questions in the process.
WHOSE IDEA WAS IT ANYWAY?
The roots of the Paralympic Games can be traced back to the First World War, and more particularly Sir Ludwig Guttman, a Jewish doctor who had fled Nazi Germany and believed passionately in sport as a method of rehabilitating disabled military personnel. Having established the Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, he organised a competition there for injured war veterans. Held on 28 July 1948, it coincided with the start of that year’s London Olympics. Twelve months later, as The Stoke Mandeville Games became an annual event, Guttman is reported to have said in his opening speech: “Maybe one day there would be Olympics for the disabled.”
The first official Paralympics, so-called because they run in parallel with the Olympic Games, were held in 1960, when Rome was the host city for both. At that time, only athletes in wheelchairs competed. It was not until 1976, in Toronto, that different disabilities were included, which expanded the field to 1,600 competitors from 40 countries.
Since 1960, the Paralympics have been held in the same year as the Olympic Games. Since 1988, they have been held in the same city. In 2001, it was stipulated that the Paralympics should be part of the package in the Olympic bidding process. This is the first year in which planning for both Games has been fully integrated.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN DISABLED?
For those who regard the Paralympic classification system as needlessly complex, and too politically correct, it is helpful to think of it only as a device with which to ensure meaningful competition, in the same way that boxing divides itself into weights and, in the wider sporting world, men are separated from women.
There are a few broad categories – amputees, those with cerebral palsy, the visually impaired and those with injuries, often spinal, that require them to be in a wheelchair. Other disabilities such as multiple sclerosis or dwarfism – Les Autres – used to have a category of their own, but not any more. Since the 1980s, the classification system has been based not on an athlete’s medical condition, but on his potential to fulfil sport-specific functions, irrespective of the disability. A panel of experts is responsible for assessing each individual.
Some sports, such as the football sevens, are open only to those from one of the main categories. Others invite all disability groups thanks to “functional” classification. In the 100m, there are 15 different men’s finals, and 16 for the women.
WHEN IS A PARALYMPIAN NOT A PARALYMPIAN?
Sadly, the complexity of the classification system is such that controversy is inevitable. Athletes have been known to exaggerate impairments so that they are given an easier classification, and with it, a better medal chance. At the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, 11 athletes were sent home for doing precisely that. Tales abound of competitors faking a withered arm or leg to classifiers. An increasingly rigorous system has made cheating more difficult, but there will always be the temptation for some to demonstrate, with a little too much zeal, their physical limitations.
Intellectual disabilities return to this year’s Paralympics – in athletics, swimming and table tennis – after they were suspended from the 2004 and 2008 Games. A new system of classification has been introduced in an attempt to ensure that there is no repeat of the scandal in 2000, when it turned out that ten of the gold medal-winning Spanish basketball team had faked their learning difficulties.
All of which is an indication of the lengths to which Paralympic athletes, as well as their coaches and officials, will go in pursuit of a medal. Another unfortunate consequence is the way in which outstanding performances, even by those who have played fair, can be treated with suspicion. A Paralympic Games is only as successful and credible as its classification procedure.
HOW MANY MEDALS WILL WE WIN?
British Paralympians returned from Beijing in 2008 with 102 medals, 42 of them gold, a total bettered only by China. Having received UK Sport funding of £49 million, the target this time is to win 103, and again finish second in the table.
From a British perspective, all eyes will be on Johnnie Peacock, right, in the T44 100m. It is shaping up to be the race of the 2012 Paralympics. The 19-year-old Englishman, who this year broke the world record held by Oscar Pistorius, is gearing up for a showdown with the South African – and indeed the latter’s American rival, Jerome Singleton – in what is being billed as the Battle of the Blade Runners.
Lee Pearson, who has nine equestrian gold medals from the last three Paralympics, will capture the imagination with his attempt to surpass the 11 won by Tanni Grey-Thompson. David Weir, the wheelchair racer who is a talisman for the athletics team, is expected to add to the six medals he won in Beijing and Athens. And 17-year-old swimmer Ellie Simmonds, one of Britain’s best-known Paralympians, will have a weight of expectation on her shoulders after her double-gold performance four years ago.
Among Scotland’s representatives is Mike Kerr of Uddingston, a member of GB’s medal-chasing wheelchair rugby team. Aberdeen’s Neil Fachie, an athlete in Beijing, is targeting gold in the cycling. And 63-year-old archer Kate Murray, the oldest competitor at these Games, is aiming for the podium finish that eluded her in 2008.
WHAT ARE WE PLAYING AT?
The biggest of the 20 sports in the Paralympics will be athletics, with Oscar Pistorius, aka the Blade Runner, turning from the 400m, in which he competed at the Olympic Games, to the 100m and 4x100m relay. Then comes the swimming, in which Natalie du Toit, a ten-times Paralympic champion, makes her last appearance before retiring.
The wheelchair sports are among the most popular, particularly basketball and rugby. The latter, a violent clatter of armoured chairs, is also lovingly referred to as “murderball”, after the 2005 documentary that detailed the intense rivalry between Canada and the USA.
The classic disciplines are there, from archery, shooting and judo to powerlifting, rowing and cycling (at Brands Hatch). Football has a seven-a-side event for athletes with cerebral palsy, as well as a five-a-side one for the blind and visually-impaired. In this, the crowd are asked to be silent so that players can hear the ball.
Sports you are less likely to be familiar with are goalball, in which the blind or partially-sighted must roll or throw the ball into their opponents’ net, and boccia (pronounced bot-cha), a kind of French boules for wheelchair users. The latter competition will include Peter and Stephen McGuire, Scottish brothers with muscular dystrophy.
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