With the ceremonial cauldron lit in London’s Trafalgar Square by Claire Lomas, who was paralysed in a horse riding accident, the nation will once again be gripped with another spectacular sports event from August 29 to September 9. Her remarks, “I think the Paralympics will show what kind of people we are, what’s going on in our hearts” reverberates across the British Isles.
The world is once again holding its breath to see what London will offer during the Paralympics, in its iconic Olympic Park in Stratford where the majority of the successful Olympic events took place just a couple of weeks ago. With over 4,000 Paralympians from 166 countries, this is going to be the second biggest show on earth.
The Paralympic Games have a special meaning to Britain. Its origin goes back to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire in the late 1940s when Ludwig Guttmann, who fled the Nazis before the outbreak of the World War II, established the first spinal injury centre. He introduced sports into the treatment and rehabilitation programme for those with spinal injuries and other disabled people. The first Paralympic Games took place in Rome in 1960.
Games coming home
Having the Paralympic Games in London is like the Games coming home. Britain currently has one of the world’s best facilities for disabled people; in educational institutions, work places and in the public spaces. London is also uniquely diverse; there are over one million disabled people in this world city, nearly a third of the city’s population is from Black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME) groups and over 300 languages are spoken in London.
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There are still parts of the world which have yet to create the minimum facilities required for disabled people in real life. I am fortunate that in my profession as a SEN (special educational needs) teacher, I have seen the bright faces of so many disabled children who, owing to the facilities they received in schools, were outshining other children in education. Seeing human beings overcome and break barriers of physical or psychological limitations is truly an inspiration.
With Paralympic sports on our doorstep, we will be watching a triumph of the human spirit. It is really heartening to see that the British people have rushed for the Paralympic tickets; most of the quarter million tickets have already been sold, on par with the enthusiasm shown to buy Olympic tickets.
Disabilities, an umbrella term covering impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions, had a stigma in many cultures and societies in the past, and unfortunately, it still appears in some. A disability may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or a combination of these. It can be present from birth, or occur during a person’s lifetime. The Paralympics will display that such inhibitions arising from a disability are not a barrier in life.
Following on from the Spinal Injury Centre, the Paralympic Movement grew and separate organisations were formed to serve athletes with other disabilities, example, for amputees, the visually impaired or those with Cerebral Palsy.
In 1982, the International Coordinating Committee of World Sport Organisations for the Disabled (ICC) was established to govern the Paralympics and to represent the Games in dialogue with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other global organisations.
A new governing body, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), with a clear vision “to enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world” replaced the ICC in 1992. The IPC includes more than 100 member nations as well as the international federations that represent different disability groups.
The Paralympic motto introduced in 2004 at the Paralympic Games in Athens is now “Spirit in Motion”. The Paralympic values are “Determination, Courage, Inspiration and Equality”. This motto and these values truly represent the human spirit of resilience.
The IPC has six disability categories, for both the Summer and Winter Paralympic Games. They are:
1) Amputee for those who have partial or total loss of at least one limb,
2) Cerebral Palsy who have non-progressive brain damage or similar disabilities affecting muscle control, balance or coordination,
3) Intellectual Disability for those who have a significant impairment in intellectual functioning and associated limitations in adaptive behaviour,
4) Wheelchair for those who have spinal cord injuries and other disabilities that require them to compete in a wheelchair,
5) Visually Impaired for those who have eyesight ranging from partial vision, sufficient to be judged legally, to total blindness, and
6) Les Autres for those who have a physical disability and do not fall strictly under one of the other five categories.
“Great Britain’s Paralympic target is ambitious, it is beyond securing second place on the medal table.”
With the unprecedented success of the recent London 2012 Olympic Games, there is now huge expectation for the Paralympic Games to deliver. Great Britain’s Paralympic target is ambitious, it is beyond securing second place on the medal table; it is about raising the profile of Paralympic athletes and sports and to demonstrate exceptional performances to the widest possible audience.
At the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, ParalympicsGB had come second in the medals table, winning 42 gold medals. However, ParalympicsGB’s 300-strong team of Paralympic athletes are eyeing over 100 medals across 12 sports, this time.
To some, the expectations may be too great and the bar may have been set too high, although it is certainly possible if the Paralympians can draw inspiration from team GB’s resounding success at the Olympic Games. Only time will tell.
Judging by the huge interest of people during the Olympic Games and the subsequent rush by youngsters in joining sports clubs around the country it appears that, for the short term at least, the Olympic legacy is on track.
For the Paralympic Games, the primary legacy will be judged by changing perceptions about disability in the world. It is about using the power of sport to change the way people think about disabled people and disability sport.
The sheer numbers of tickets sold is a tribute to the way Paralympic sport has already moved forward. Baroness Grey-Thompson, one of Britain’s greatest ever Paralympians, recently told a congregation at St Paul’s Cathedral for the first ever service to be dedicated to the Paralympics:
“Nelson Mandela once said that sport has the power to change the world, but I believe it goes beyond this. Paralympic sport has the power to change the world. The Paralympic Games will show the world what extraordinary athletes can do, who happen to have a disability. These Games will inspire a generation to think differently.”
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist and parenting consultant. He is a non-executive member of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) board.
Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari