Faster, higher, stronger

David Eades

From modest beginnings at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948, the Paralympic Games have grown from strength to strength. This year, in London, 4,200 athletes from 165 countries will compete in 22 sports including wheelchair tennis, rowing, swimming, and track and field athletics. As the quality of the competition improves, so does the profile of the Games and the athletes who compete in it.

We all have dreams when we are young. David Smetanine was no different. His was to represent his country at the greatest sporting show on earth; to swim for France in search of Olympic glory. In 1992, he watched the great Russian, Alexander Popov, remind the Americans and Australians that Eu­ropeans could swim too. And his mind was made up.

Very few of us achieve those childhood aspirations.

To watch David Smetanine power-glide his way down an Olympic pool is to admire a gold medallist at the height of his form. To exam­ine David closely, however, is to appreciate the physical, emotional and psychological challenge of reaching this peak after surviving a car crash that deprived him of the use of the swimmers’ engine room – his legs. Since the age of 22, David has been a partial, or incomplete, tetraplegic, ,with all four limbs affected to some degree.

His gliding is in fact a monumental effort of upper body strength and technique; it is the arms that heave his body through the water. And in Beijing, they powered him to gold medals in the 100m and 50m freestyle, and silver in the 50m backstroke and 200m free­style. Rich reward at the age of 33 for a man whose first taste of the Paralympic Games concluded with a solitary bronze in Athens.

“I came fourth three times,” Smetanine says. “I wanted it so much. I had come to appreciate that if I really wanted to get to the Games, I had to be in it to win. Gold medal only, that was my mentality, so to keep coming fourth was desperate. When I finally got that bronze, that was a gold for me at the time.”

Smetanine’s story has the same ring as that of any Olympic ath­lete – staggering commitment, total belief, complete focus. But it is the circumstances of Paralympians that make their stories so ex­traordinary. “Watching top level sport usually brings an initial ex­citement,” says chief executive of the British Paralympic Associa­tion Tim Hollingsworth. “Then you contextualise it; you put your heroes on a pedestal, people like Usain Bolt or Chris Hoy. But you think they are out of your reach in terms of performance.”

Hollingsworth continues: “With Paralympic sport, if you ac­cept the excellence within the sport, you have to recognise what somebody is really achieving and the sheer level of commitment. Perhaps this is the goal for London 2012 – to bring recognition of Paralympic athletes to the level they deserve.”

This is the parallel Olympic world: indeed, the title of ‘Paralym­pics’ was bestowed on the world’s second biggest sporting event precisely because it has been modelled and effectively run in parallel with the Olympic Games. Its origins were found in Stoke Mande-ville, a town in south-east England, and home to a hospital renowned for rehabilitating servicemen injured during World War II. In 1948, as London staged the ‘Austerity Games’ to breathe new life into the modern Olympic movement, Stoke Mandeville hosted the Wheel­chair and Amputee Games, an event still on the calendar today.

In 1960, the Rome Olympic Games welcomed disabled athletes for the first time. Archery, athletics, dartchery (a combination of darts and archery), snooker, swimming, table tennis, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair fencing were the only sports, as 400 par­ticipants from 23 countries competed over a week. It took another 24 years for the International Olympic Committee to rubber-stamp the term ‘Paralympics’, but the seed had been sown.

The event has grown exponentially since those days. In London, 4,200 athletes from 165 countries will be competing. The increase in individuals on Beijing is only marginal – a further 250 will be taking part – but significantly, there will be an additional 19 nations represented. “When you get countries including North Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon all making their debut, you come to realise the ground we are breaking,” says Craig Spen­ce of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

It is also a far more inclusive Games. Paralympians today can compete in five different classifications: Amputation, Cerebral Palsy, Wheelchair, Visual Impairment and Blindness, plus a fifth classifica­tion for other disabilities, including multiple sclerosis or dwarfism. But this is the element of the Paralympics that can also baffle and be­wilder the casual spectator. Who performs in which event – and why?

Events are listed by a code and a number to describe the type of event. Most sports distinguish participants both by category and severity of disability; swimming prefers to group competitors from different categories together, aiming to level out the severity of the disability. For example, Oscar Pistorius, the brilliant South African sprinter, runs in the T44 class. ‘T’ denotes the event (‘T’ is for ‘Track’) while the 44 positions him in an event where a prosthesis must be worn for running.

Pistorius himself is an illustration of how the gap between able-bod­ied and disabled athletes can be closed. Such is his speed over 400m that he has fought desperately to meet the qualification time for the Olympics themselves. That speed brings with it the highest profile of any disabled athlete; it also draws him into an ongoing controversy over the possible advantage that artificial limbs can have in his sport.

Any issue people may have with Pistorius, however, is built around a ready acknowledgement that he is one among many tal­ented athletes looking to do the best they can according to the rules. There are, however, others who prefer to cheat. Paralympic drug scandals have been uncovered since the first doping tests during the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. In both the summer and winter games, athletes have been found guilty and banned.

The triumphant Spanish basketball team of the 2000 Games top the podium for cheating controversies. After winning gold in the intellectual disability category, it transpired that most of the team had avoided medical tests to confirm their disability. Among their ranks were players with university degrees – hardly meeting the maximum allowed IQ of 70. The team were forced to hand back their medals. Only now, 12 years on, have events for intellectual disability been reintegrated into the Paralympics.

But cheating does in one sense reflect the increasing difficulty of winning. “The depth of talent is growing year on year, as is the standard of performance. The days of being competitive in Para­lympic Games time and time again are pretty much over. World records are broken by milliseconds these days,” says Spence.

Yet it is still true to say that a handful of countries dominate when it comes to the size of their team. In Beijing, more than 50 percent of competitors came from just 11 nations. The IPC knows the search for more spread of talent must go on. And there is a real hope that London will assist in accelerating that search. For the first time, the Paralympics will have the same major commercial partners as the Olympics – a reflection of the growing attraction of being associated with the event.

That means higher profile, more attention and more opportunity to make a name for yourself as a Paralympian. “When we put the first tickets on sale last September, we sold 1.1 million in just 3 weeks,” says Spence. “In Sydney, the majority of tickets were giv­en to schoolchildren to fill the venues. That was 12 years ago. This will be the first Games when we sell all tickets – at full price – and that amounts to 2.2 million bums on seats.”

The interest extends to the broadcasters too. “Britain’s Channel 4 has taken coverage to a new level,” he adds. The IPC has selected 54 athletes and teams to become their ‘stars’ of the Games – work­ing closely with Channel 4 to promote them as personalities in a way that few Paralympians have ever experienced.

The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Para-lympic Games (LOCOG) is also being credited with levelling the playing field for disabled athletes. “If you speak to the organiser of transport at LOCOG, or the head of operations at the athletes’ village, you are speaking to the same person for both Games,” says Hollingsworth. “For the planning of the village, they have worked backwards, putting the needs of disabled athletes first. There will be no need to adapt the facilities after the Olympics. This is some­thing London should be rightly proud of.”

What remains to be seen is what effect these Games can have on Paralympic sport. “We wait to see if it has an impact on the wider society, if it challenges peoples’ perceptions further still,” Holling­sworth adds. “Our vision is of a point at which we look not at what people are NOT able to do, but what they ARE able to achieve.”

David Smetanine says “Amen” to that. Now 37, he is also a member of the IPC Athletes’ Commission, helping to create oppor­tunities for disabled swimmers in other parts of the world. The car crash that bestowed on him his disability was the defining incident of his life. The Paralympics is the event that has defined him as a person. “I was given a chance, and given the encouragement,” he says. “I took it. And I want to make sure others can take it too.”

About the author:

David Eades is a presenter for BBC World News and BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight


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