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Paralympics: Let the games begin

paralympic runner_23_07_12Returning to the country of its spiritual birthplace in 2012, the Paralympic Games is as important as the main multi-sport event – and this year the show is set to be bigger than ever.

With the competition taking place on home soil between 29 August and 9 September, the Paralympic Games has grown rapidly from just a small gathering of British World War II veterans in 1948 to become one of the largest scale international sporting events of the early 21st century.

The idea for the Paralympics came about when a sports competition for people who had injured their spines while fighting in the war took place. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurologist who was working with the injured war veterans at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, UK, began using sport as part of the rehabilitation programmes for his patients.

He set up a competition with other hospitals to coincide with the London Olympics in that year. In 1960, the Olympics was held in Rome, and Guttmann brought 400 wheelchair athletes to the Olympic city to compete.

The modern Parallel Olympics (or ‘Paralympics’) was born. Margaret Maughan won Britain’s first ever gold medal in 1960 in archery – the first sport to be included in Guttmann’s treatment plans. In 1964, the able-bodied athletes went to Tokyo for the Olympics and shortly afterwards the Japanese capital also played host to the disabled athletes.

By the time of the Montreal Games in 1976, athletes with other disabilities were included as well. The Paralympics has always been in the same year as the Summer Olympics, but has only been held in the same country since 1988 in Seoul, Korea. In 1976, the first-ever Paralympics Winter Games took place in Sweden. Since then it has become as important as the Olympics.

Learning from the best

The London 2012 Paralympic Games will be the biggest to date, featuring 4,200 athletes from 160 countries who will compete in 20 sports. One of the UK’s medal hopes is talented Paralympic sprinter, Jonnie Peacock. The 18-year-old amputee athlete has been in training alongside the most experienced sprinters in the British team – 100m star, Dwain Chambers, Marlon Devonish and Christian Malcolm – and hopes it can push him to achieving a medal when he competes in the most eagerly-anticipated event of the Games, the T44 100 metres, against the likes of Oscar Pistorius and Jerome Singleton.

Jonnie, who had his right leg amputated just below the knee when he was five after he contracted the inflammatory brain illness, meningitis, says: ‘These are the guys that are always on form when they go to races. Dwain Chambers, look at him, he hits his personal bests when it counts. If I can learn from things they’re doing and the way they view things, hopefully that can give me some more experience to get ready for the next competition.’

The Cambridge-born athlete certainly showed the crowds he was shaping up well for the summer challenge with a new British record of 11.32 seconds at the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester in May. Jonnie won his race by 0.1seconds, although neither rivals Pistorius nor Singleton were in the field that day.

Meanwhile, Paralympic boccia competitor, Stephen McGuire, believes he can help build a ‘huge legacy’ for the target ball sport if he caps his landmark year with a medal – having feared for his future in the sport not long ago.

The Scot was out of action for 12 months after questions were raised in 2009 over his throwing action. It was a worrying time for McGuire but he underwent tests to prove the legality of his technique and returned with a bang in 2010, securing silver medals in both the individual and – alongside his older brother Peter – pairs BC4 events at the World Championships in Lisbon.

Stephen is looking to make a big impact in London this year, which he feels could have a significant knock-on effect for British boccia going forward. ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ enthused Stephen, who has the muscle disease muscular dystrophy and first took up playing boccia in 2005.

‘To be able to compete at a home Olympics or Paralympics event – not many athletes in their whole career will get that opportunity and to win a medal with the home crowd watching would be absolutely fantastic.

‘I think it would raise the profile of the sport tremendously without a doubt. Over the last year, the profile has really shot up and this year has the potential to leave a huge legacy.’

Coming home

The Paralympic Games was designed to emphasise the participants’ athletic achievements, not their disability. The movement has grown dramatically since its early days and both the Paralympic Summer and Winter Games are now recognised on the world sports stage.

The sporting event is no longer held solely for British war veterans or just for athletes in wheelchairs, but for elite athletes with a wide variety of disabilities from all over the world. And, as British Paralympic Association chief executive, Phil Lane, says: ‘The UK is passionate about Paralympic sport. The movement was born here, at Stoke Mandeville, so it feels as if the Paralympic Games is coming home.’

Sally says… ‘It’s so inspiring to see these amazing athletes achieve what they do. They are an example of true competitors.’

Checking out the competition
Four years ago, the 13th Paralympics took place in Beijing, China. Many world-records were broken – but can Team GB do even better?

Last time around

The Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games was certainly record breaking, and in more ways than one. More athletes and countries competed than ever before and the Games were seen by the most people ever, combining spectators in the 19 competition venues or viewers on television and the internet. With the 2008 addition of rowing to the events programme for the first time, a total of 20 sports took place in China. All but the sailing (Qingdao) and equestrian (Hong Kong) sports were held in Beijing.

Events – then and this year – include archery, athletics, boccia, para road cycling, para track cycling, equestrian, football five-a-side, football seven-a-side, goalball, judo, powerlifting, rowing, sailing, shooting, swimming, para-table tennis, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair fencing, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair tennis.

Outstanding performances during Beijing 2008

In a repeat of the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, China and Great Britain held the top two positions in the medals table. The host nation took home 89 golds, while Great Britain took home 42 gold medals.

In the Bird’s Nest stadium (officially the National Stadium), Canada’s T54 wheelchair racer, Chantal Petitclerc, was unbeatable taking five gold medals in all distances from 100m through to 1,500m. Described by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) as ‘one of the best wheelchair athletes in the world’, British wheelchair racer, David Weir, won four medals. Gold in 800m T54 and in 1,500m T54, silver in 400m T54 and bronze in 5,000m T54. He holds the British record at all track distances up to 5,000m.

South African sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, claimed three golds in the 100m, 200m and 400m T44 races, setting a new world record of 47.49 seconds in the 400m. Irish sprinter, Jason Smyth, was equally as impressive, setting new world records on his way to gold in the 100m and 200m T13 races.

Brazilian swimmer, Daniel Dias, was the man to beat in the Water Cube aquatics venue, taking home a total of nine swimming medals consisting of four golds, four silvers and one bronze. South Africa’s Natalie du Toit was also taking no prisoners after winning five gold medals out of five swimming events. At the closing ceremony, du Toit was awarded the Whand Youn Dai Achievement Award, in recognition of her exemplary role in practicing the Paralympic motto ‘Spirit in Motion’.

Dutch wheelchair tennis player, Esther Vergeer, collected her third consecutive Paralympic Games gold medal with victory in the Women’s singles. There is no doubt that the competitors’ for this year’s Games will have some tough victories to beat.

This article was first published in at home with Sally Gunnell in August 2012. [Read the digital edition here]

Picture credit: Shutterstock

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