James Lawton: If you think this is Olympics MkII, you are missing the whole point


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The Independent Online

As the great overture to the Paralympic Games plays out in the Olympic Stadium, there is an insistent message that says what follows over the next 11 days has to be seen in the same light, and with the same fervour, as the 30th Olympics.

This is a huge burden for the sportsmen and women who preparing to illuminate our care-worn lives, and the instinct is to lighten it a little. There is no easy way to do this, not least because of the risk of even one patronising breath on competitors who would be entitled to react with contempt. In seeking an easy reproduction of the flag-waving, medal-hoarding euphoria, we may well, even with the very best intentions, be missing the unique point of the Paralympics. If many of the marketing techniques are similar, opening today is not another version of the Olympics, but something which has a quality that a dozen Usain Bolts would be hard pushed to match.

These are the Paralympics of a new age of understanding of human possibilities and if the rush for tickets is partly to do with the spirit created by the first event, other factors are at work. The most irresistible is that Paralympic sport is the point made by the American world champion sprinter Jerome Singleton, who next week challenges the South African mould-breaker and Olympian Oscar Pistorius in the 100 metres also targeted by Britain's Jonnie Peacock. "Recognise the ability, not the disability," Singleton commands, and that is no hardship, no more than it was to be moved by the instantly beloved Ellie Simmonds, inset above, in Beijing.

Such desire to succeed, will no doubt suffuse more esoteric disciplines like the Italian version of bowls, Boccia, Sitting Volleyball and the blunt aggression of wheelchair rugby, which so happily defines itself as Murderball.

The appeal of the Paralympics is so fierce that some of the loudest cries for a repeat of the support that buoyed the Great Britain team have tended, at least in these ears, to sound a faintly discordant note.

Leaders of the British team have called for more national fervour. Sir Philip Craven, a wheelchair basketball Paralympian and now president of the International Paralympic Committee, says: "For Britain to be highly successful here is very important. It's got to be good news, for people coming to watch." Britain's chef de mission Craig Hunter is even more bullish, declaring: "We are looking for more medals across more sports. They are out there to prove some points about how wonderful Paralympic sport is."

Yet who needs converting? The wonder of the Paralympics is that they are about sport in the truest way. They are about the highest possible achievement. They are about the value of competition, of drawing from yourself the very best you have and, yes, if a gold medal happens to be the reward, it is certainly no matter for complaint. But then if you have performed to your capacity, so too is a gruelling though medal-less episode of Murderball.

One of the great beauties of the Olympics was the response of the crowd to achievement. If Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis were bathed in acclaim it was at no cost to the glory of a Bolt or the unforgettable 800 metres world record breaker from Kenya, David Rudisha.

At the Paralympics there is every reason to believe in a similar and perhaps even greater reaction. They are the Games which parade not just the colours of nations but hearts beneath them which would ideally unite us all.