A parallel world: same problems

PARALYMPICS: British squad of 244 look to record haul of gold medals in Atlanta, reports Chris Maume
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The Independent Online
One gold, eight silvers, seven bronze - that was Britain's medal haul in the Olympic Games just gone. Forty golds, 47 silvers and 41 bronze - that was Britain's total in the Barcelona Paralympics four years ago, a figure they are surely destined to surpass in Atlanta over the next 10 days.

If John Major needs a sporting donation to the feelgood factor of his re-election campaign, he knows where to look. There are 244 athletes out there waiting to hand him the election on a golden plate, especially after a morale-building week at their training camp on a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida.

After three days of classification - checking disability categories and reclassifying athletes with deteriorating conditions - the good feelings start tonight in the Olympic Stadium, where Christopher Reeve, the Superman actor paralysed after a fall from his horse, takes on the job of MC for the opening ceremony. Aretha Franklin, Liza Minnelli and Carly Simon will be there, and organisers promise "people performing jumps in wheelchairs and disabled people flying through the air."

Things have progressed since Dr Ludwig Guttmann began using sports as therapy at Stoke Mandeville for Second World War veterans with spinal- cord injuries. In 1948 he set up a competition between sports clubs and hospitals to coincide with the London Olympics, and by 1960, when the International Stoke Mandeville Games took place in that year's Olympic city, Rome, there were 400 athletes from 23 countries. Pope Paul VI called Dr Guttmann the "de Coubertin of the paralysed".

If it still needs saying, the word "paralympics" refers to "parallel Olympics", not "paraplegic Olympics" as the broadcaster David Coleman referred to them four years ago, although for a long time there were only wheelchair events. By Toronto in 1976, when blind and amputee events were added, there were 1,560 athletes from 40 countries, and Atlanta is playing host to 4,000 from more than 120 countries.

There is far less sense of disabled sport being on the margins than leading up to Barce- lona, when public consciousness was first aroused. In 1980 the Olympic hosts, the Soviet Union, refused to have the Games in their country - how could they when, according to their statistics, there were no disabled people in their land.

Two years ago, Arthur Tunstall, the then Australian vice-president of the Common- wealth Games Federation, embarrassed only himself when he used the word "embarrassing" to describe the inclusion of wheelchair racing and disabled swimming and bowls in the 1994 Commonwealth Games. The outrage he provoked showed that some attitudes are no longer acceptable.

There are other positive signs: disabled athletes were recently included on the Royal Mail's series of stamps to celebrate 100 years of the Olympics. In April, Nike launched a poster campaign featuring Peter Hull, the swimmer who won three golds in 1992. And the BBC is taking things more seriously. In 1992 coverage was limited to half-hour weekly round-ups; this time there are 10 half-hour nightly slots.

It is difficult not to conclude, these days, that the disabled have earned their place in the international sports arena. Not that that is all good. Just as sport as a whole is a mirror of society, so necessarily is disabled sport. There is drug abuse, for example. And there is even a unique variation used by some wheelchair athletes - a technique called "boosting", in which they deliberately injure the already damaged parts of their bodies. The athlete feels no pain, but the body responds as if he or she did, raising the blood pressure and releasing noradrenaline, allowing the body to do more work. Scientists are divided over whether it has an effect, but one study found a 10 per cent improvement in performance.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to act against as it occurs naturally in some quadraplegics and paraplegics. Tanni Grey MBE, probably Britain's best-known disabled athlete, acknowledged its existence recently, saying: "It's vitally important the authorities find a way of testing for it, and soon. Otherwise it could develop in the way that anabolic steroids have in able-bodied sport."

There are other unique problems, such as the whole contentious area of classification. Like many teams, the British have spent the last three days putting in appeals over certain athletes' disability status. Fortunately, the whole operation has taken place in an unexpected cool snap. No torture in tropical heat - so far.

There are obstacles left over, though, from the "Operation Cock-Up" that was the Olympics. When I asked Caroline Searle, of the British Paralympic Association, if three weeks of competition had enabled the organisers to smooth out the wrinkles, her laugh had a telling, gaily embittered tone. "Oh, no. In fact, the problems spilled over and we spent the first two or three days running to catch up." No change there then.