Exclusive: Britain leads the way as Paralympians get own series

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After 80,000 sell-out crowds at the Summer Games two of eight grand prix meetings, including the final, will be held in the UK

Britain has been chosen as the main stage for a pioneering grand prix circuit for Paralympic track-and-field athletes this summer. Following the unprecedented success of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, the International Paralympic Committee have decided to trial a global series of meetings in 2013 in the style of the IAAF Diamond League that showcases the world's leading able-bodied athletes. Two of the eight meetings, including the final, will be staged in the UK.

The news is not the only boost to the British stars who captured the public's imagination at the 2012 Paralympics. UK Athletics, who have been pushing for a grand prix circuit and who will organise the British meetings, will also introduce races for elite disabled athletes in the established televised indoor meetings in Britain this winter. There will be four events on the programme at the British Athletics International Match at the new Emirates Arena in Glasgow on 26 January, featuring Paralympic medallists such as Libby Clegg and Steph Reid.

"These are massive developments," said Sophia Warner, the 2012 Paralympian who has been lobbying to build on the momentum of the London Games in her new role as commercial director of UK Athletics. "The IPC grand prix series will be the first Diamond League equivalent for disabled athletes. Paralympic athletes will have the opportunity to race all year round against competitors from around the world – just like able-bodied athletes do in the Diamond League.

"The series starts in April. [Of the eight meetings] there will be two in the UK, one in Rio, one in Germany and one I think in the Netherlands. The fact that the final will be in the UK, most likely in Birmingham, is so exciting. I think it shows that Britain really is leading the way in terms of interest in elite disabled sport."

There can be little disputing that. The 2012 Paralympics attracted 80,000 sell-out crowds to every morning and evening athletics session. The fact that further high-profile events are on the way will come as a timely lift to Warner's GB Para-lympic team-mates. Only a week ago blade-runner Jonnie Peacock, winner of the blue-riband T44 100 metres final in London, was bemoaning having only one event to aim at in 2013: the IPC Athletics World Championships in July.

"It's incredible news," said Aled Davies, the Welshman who won the F42 shot and discus titles. "This is just what we need. Myself, Jonnie Peacock, Dave Weir and Hannah Cockroft have all been preaching for something like this. The demand is there. On social media people are always asking when and where they can see us competing. I believe it will be very successful."

Cockcroft – "Hurricane Hannah," the Halifax wheelchair racer who breezed to T34 100m and 200m gold in London – told The Independent on Sunday: "This is a massive deal for us. It's brilliant. We've the World Championships in London in 2017 but need to keep in the public eye until then.

"Sophia Warner has done a great job in the short time she's been at UK Athletics. She's been on the team. She knows how we all feel and how much we want these kind of opportunities."

Warner, a 38-year-old mother of two who has cerebral palsy, finished fourth in the T35 100m and 200m finals at the London Paralympics last September. A month later she joined UK Athletics as commercial director.

"I think it's particularly interesting from my perspective," she said. "I got my first GB kit back in 1998 and there must have been only my dad and a few friends watching when I won a gold medal at the World Championships that year. Last year there were 80,000 people watching me run a PB in the Olympic Stadium. So I've seen how much we've come on.

"The 2012 Games was a massive step forward. Never before has the public hunger been there for watching elite disabled sport, and UK Athletics has responded accordingly."

Appointing Warner to such a pivotal role signalled their intention not to just maintain the equal support they gave to elite disabled athletes before 2012 but to add momentum to the Great British Paralympic bandwagon. Warner is still in training and intends to have a taste of grand prix action. "My goal is to compete in the grand prix series and the World Championships and then retire," Warner said. "I'm quite sad to be retiring when it's all suddenly livened up."

The other good news is that the Paralympic World Cup, held in Manchester each year leading up to 2012 with BT backing, could continue in some guise in 2013. The British Paralympic Association and the sports marketing agency Fast Track are both "hopeful" it will take place this year.

Seven steps to the new age

1924 The first International Silent Games in Paris for people with disabilities – it still exists today.

1948 At Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the first competition for disabled athletes to coincide with the London Olympics – the International Wheelchair Games for World War Two veterans with spinal-cord injuries.

1960 The first official Paralympic Games – not just for war veterans – is held in Rome.

1976 Non-wheelchair athletes in the Paralympic Games for the first time. First Winter Paralympic Games in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.

1988 In Seoul the Paralympics are staged after the Olympic Games, in the same city at the same facilities.

2012 The London Paralympics draw sell-out crowds and huge interest.

2013 The International Paralympic Committee launch a grand prix circuit.

Simon Turnbull

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