London's conquering heroes head home as Paralympics prepare for another sell-out
They came, they saw and many of them conquered. But all good things must come to an end. Yesterday Britain began bidding farewell to the 10,000 athletes who had called Stratford their home as organisers began the herculean task of readying the Olympic Park in time for the Paralympics.
The exodus began early as thousands of athletes flocked to a specially constructed terminal at Heathrow airport while others block-booked seats on the Eurostar to take them across the Channel. Even as they flew out, Paralympians began arriving as London prepares to host another major sporting event.
Excitement generated by the Olympic Games has rubbed off on the Paralympics, which were first held in London in 1948. Organisers announced yesterday that they are expecting the first sellout in the Games' history with 2.1 million of the 2.5 million tickets snapped up by the public so far.
"Our aim is to sell every single ticket," said Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee. "It would be fitting when the Paralympic Movement returns to its spiritual birthplace in three weeks' time it does so in front of packed, sold-out venues."
Over the coming days venues will need to be reconfigured to hold a variety of Paralympian sports. Hundreds of buses will be converted to make them wheelchair-accessible as the Athletes Village prepares to welcome another 4,200 competitors from 165 nations from 20 August onwards.
Games chief Lord Coe praised the "spirit of generosity" demonstrated by the British people as officials called on the country to make one final push for the Paralympics in two weeks' time.
The mass departures came as Lord Moynihan, chair of the British Olympic Authority and one of the chief architects of Team GB's most successful Games ever, announced he was stepping down. The ex-Tory MP and Sports minister had been in charge of BOA since 2005 with the express mandate of overhauling it in the run-up to London 2012 but felt it was time to hand over to someone new.
Some of the sleep-deprived sporting heroes who arrived at Heathrow at dawn yesterday may have wondered if their check-in process was some bizarre continuation of the Closing Ceremony. The athletes were ushered into a big shed by three actors wearing guardmen's uniforms.
The security search area was dressed up in rustic red brick, and led to a waiting area supposed to resemble a London park – with plastic grass and benches. To ensure the peak day for "Games family" departures ran smoothly, Heathrow built this temporary terminal beside the cargo sheds on the airfield.
To avoid contaminating the normal check-in areas, luggage was picked up from the Village and processed separately. Colin Matthews, chief executive of Heathrow's owner, BAA, said: "We have been preparing for seven years to deliver a farewell of which the whole country can be proud."
As they prepared to board their planes, athletes embraced, signed flags and attached scrawled messages as paper "leaves" on an artificial tree. Aimable Bayingana, who led the Rwanda cycling team, signed off with: "It was a nice journey."
Four of Congo's team go missing
Four members of the Democratic Republic of Congo's Olympic team have gone missing in London, it was revealed yesterday, taking the number of African athletes to have vanished during the Games to 11.
Cedric Mandembo, who lost his only judo match in 49 seconds, along with judo coach Ibula Masengo, boxing trainer Blaise Bekwa and national technical director of athletics Guy Nkita disappeared shortly after Sunday's Closing Ceremony, UN-sponsored Radio Okapi said. Seven Cameroonian athletes also went missing, including five boxers, a swimmer and a football player. The athletes will not infringe immigration laws until their visas expire in November. The Home Office declined to comment.
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