Injured Iraq veterans recruited to compete in the Paralympics
Saturday 10 February 2007
Britain's Olympic coaches are to recruit injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in an attempt to boost the host nation's medal haul at the 2012 Games in London.
They have agreed a plan with Army chiefs to retrain soldiers returning from the battlefield to participate in the Paralympics, which will take place two weeks after the "main event" in August 2012.
As well as boosting the UK's medal haul, the initiative has been started as a means of preventing injured and disabled soldiers from becoming socially excluded.
Unofficially, there are thought to be as many as 7,000 personnel who have been seriously injured in the Iraq conflict.
The recruitment drive has been partly inspired by a similar scheme involving the United States military and talks in the UK have involved the Ministry of Defence, the British Paralympic Association (BPA) and UK Sport, the Lottery-funded quango that has received £300m to maximise the medal haul for 2012.
It is thought that potential medallists will be identified by the BPA from those servicemen and women who have lost limbs in bomb blasts, been paralysed or blinded. They are expected to provide a rich seam of talent mainly in shooting and sports requiring high levels of stamina, such as athletics, rowing and cycling.
The shadow Olympics minister, Hugh Robertson, who served as an adjutant during the 1990-91 Gulf War in the Life Guards, one of the main tank regiments, said: "I think it is an absolutely fantastic initiative ... The benefits of taking up disabled sports for disabled soldiers injured in conflict are not only obvious in physical terms but also in repositioning their lives."
The Paralympics in 2012 will be something of a homecoming for disabled sport, which was included in the roster for the first time when the Games were staged in London in 1948. This was thanks to the endeavours of Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist at at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, in Aylesbury, who treated veterans of the Second World War with spinal injuries and whose idea it was to include a "wheelchair" element in those Games. The event was named the "Paralympics" for the 1960 Rome Games.
The standard-bearer of Paralympics in Britain in recent years has been Tanni Grey-Thompson, the nation's most successful wheelchair athlete, who has won multiple golds at four consecutive Games. Grey-Thompson points out that the modern Paralympics is highly competitive.
The military influence in US wheelchair sport is at a more advanced stage, and has drawn on veterans of conflicts dating back to Vietnam. The US team for London 2012 is expected to consist of 10 per cent former military personnel.
Last month, a Paralympic summit in Colorado was addressed by John Register, an amputee and veteran of Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He said: "Right now they [the Iraq vets] are having to ask themselves some difficult questions. They're asking: 'Who am I now? Am I still a father? Am I still a husband or a wife? Sport helps provide answers to some of those questions."
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