London Paralympic Games open to high expecations

The Takeaway

More than 4,000 athletes from 160 countries will compete in this years Paralympics. (Photo by bidgee via Flickr.)

London’s Paralympic Games are on track to be the biggest in history, with 11 days of nearly sold-out competition.

Professor Stephen Hawking led the Opening Ceremony last night as the city welcomed 4,280 athletes from 165 countries, 17 more countries than the last Paralympics in Beijing.

The London organizers have all insisted the Olympics and Paralympics be considered a single, continuous global event. But London’s history with the Paralympics has further bolstered interest in this year’s games.

Ed Hula, editor of "Around the Rings," a magazine covering both the Olympics and Paralympics, said this is like the Paralympic Games coming home.

 “The real root of these Paralympics belongs in England," he said.

On Tuesday, the Paralympic flame was lit in Stoke Mandeville, the birthplace of the first recognized sports events for people with disabilities.

In 1948, the Stoke Mandeville games were held in the town of Stoke, north of London. It’s where a German-Jewish neurologist, Ludwig Guttmann, came up with the idea of using sport as a way to further the rehabilitation of injured war veterans. He organized the first Stoke-Mandeville games and they became regular events, until 1960, when the first Paralympics were held at the Rome Olympic Games.

The Paralympics has gone far beyond the notion of rehab, expanding from just 16 athletes to more than 4,000, including athletes who’ve had disabilities since their youth.

“Oscar Pistorius, who may be the Usain Bolt of the Paralympics, the 'Blade Runner,' was born without the fibulas in his legs, and he’s been learning to run on prosthetics for all of his life,” Hula said.

About ten percent of the 223 members of the U.S. team are wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Paralympics are not for rehabilitation any more. The games have high levels of competition that in some cases exceeds the competition of the Olympic games.

“Especially if you see an event such as swimming, where you see athletes with no limbs just cruising through the water, faster than you or I could even dream of swimming,” Hula said.

He said that other sports, such as wheelchair rugby or sitting volleyball show the competitors' extreme agility.

This is even more evident in a sport such as Goalball, which requires total silence in the hall it’s played in, so that the visually impaired athletes can use their hearing to judge the distance and the placement of a ball that has a bell in it.

“So there’s all kinds of physical skills required to be a successful paralympian, whether you’re a swimmer, whether you’re playing goalball, or whether you’re in the rough and tumble world of wheelchair rugby,” Hula said.

But, perhaps the most difficult medical question involved with the Paralympics is the idea of classifications, he said.

“Depending on what limb you’re missing, your level of disability, is how you’re classified. So there’ll be several medals awarded across the classifications. And it’s a source of, unfortunately, cheating.”

According to Hula, the classification process has become more detailed because of recent cases where athletes have been misclassified through false statements and misdiagnosis.

“That’s the toughest part of making sure that there’s a smooth playing field, an even playing field in the Paralympics, is fair classification systems,” Hula said.

The Paralympics will feature several standout athletes, like Oscar Pistorius, dubbed the Blade Runner because of the carbon-fiber blades he runs on, and Daniel Diaz, a Brazilian swimmer.

“He’s been sort of the Michael Phelps, if you will, of Paralympic swimming, winning seven medals in Beijing, and he’s on course to perhaps do the same thing here in London,” Hula said.

The U.S. Women’s sitting volleyball team will have its first chance to win a gold medal in sitting volleyball, one of the most competitive sports in the Paralympics.

Hula predicts the top teams will be China, Great Britain, the United States, Russia and Ukraine.

“Great Britain will be trying to maybe top the medal table. China has done it for the past two or three Paralympic Games, but Great Britain has come in second,” he said. “It’s sort of the usual suspects, but given the numbers of athletes, it looks like China and Great Britain will be competing to be at the top of the medal table.”

The games will last for 11 days, with athletes competing in 20 sports, including, sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, rowing, cycling, sailing, wheelchair tennis, archery, equestrian and wheelchair basketball.

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