Achievement in elite sport is, ultimately, easy to measure; it is winning that counts. For some, taking part in the Paralympics, just as with the Olympics, counts as a victory of sorts but above and beyond that it is about gathering medals. Leave aside what has brought these elite athletes here to London – difficult as that may be – and consider that in simple sporting terms Britain’s 2012 Paralympians have the potential to become one of the most successful teams ever assembled by this country.
The 300 British athletes share the hallmarks of their Olympic counterparts in being well funded and well prepared. Thanks to some £50m in backing, attention to detail ripples across Paralympic sport as it did the successful Olympic set-up – last week at the preparation camp in Bath, a large dining marquee similar to the one being used in the Athletes’ Village in London was erected in order for familiarity to help breed contentment.
“London will be my fourth Games and it gets better each time,” said the swimmer Matt Walker. “The set up is so professional now.” It is a view backed by John Atkinson, the swimmer’s team leader. “This is the best supported team we’ve ever had,” he said. Nothing can be allowed to distract from the sporting challenge that lies ahead.
It is one Britain appears in a good place to attempt. What also echoes across the two Games is the ambition of the host nation. It will not be a record return of medals – the total of 240 (75 of them gold) in 1984 will never be bettered because the Paralympics has changed beyond sporting recognition since. The key difference came with China being awarded the 2008 Games. In 2004, they nearly doubled both their total amount of medals and number of gold medals, while four years ago they won 89 gold and 211 medals in all. Britain took 42 and 102 respectively.
Britain will have the largest team in London, some 20 more than China, but bridging that gap is too much to expect. It should, however, be reduced, and perhaps sizeably so. A target of one medal more than Beijing has been set by UK Sport, the body that funds elite sport. The top end of the performance target is 145 medals, and it is there where expectation should lie. There is a greater unknown factor to the Paralympics than the Olympics – an athlete is more able to come out of nowhere – but it is reasonable to assume there will be an Olympic factor in what Britain achieves. The eagerness to follow in their Olympic predecessors footsteps is tangible among Britain’s Paralympic team. “The mood is extremely good,” said Craig Hunter, Britain’s chef de mission. “We’ve come off the back of a superb Olympics and that has contributed to a mood of extreme anticipation.” One marked difference will come in the Aquatics Centre. The venue for the only significant British disappointment during the Olympics, it is expected to produce the greatest number of home medals. Swimming has been set a target of 40 to 50 medals, ahead of athletics’ 17 to 30 and cycling’s 15 to 23.
Ellie Simmonds, the 17-year-old veteran of Beijing, aims to improve on the dramatic start to her Paralympic career. Four years ago she became Britain’s youngest ever Paralympic gold medallist and came home from China with two golds. In home waters she is targeting four and has already laid down a formidable marker in the London pool, having set the first world record – able bodied or Paralympic – there in the trials earlier this year.
For other British success stories from among the 44 swimmers, look to the likes of the Kindreds (husband and wife Sascha and Nyree), Sam Hynd, a Beijing gold medallist who is joined in the team by his brother Ollie, and Daniel Pepper, a double world champion two years ago. Susie Rodgers, a 29-year-old modern languages graduate from Stockton, won five gold at last year’s European championships and is one of those who may prove a surprise multi-medallist on the grandest stage.
In the stadium, Jonnie Peacock is the Briton who will be most closely watched. The 19-year-old is the world record holder in the T44 100m and his race against Oscar Pistorious and the American Jerome Singleton will be one of the signature events of the Games. Ben Rushgrove is another sprinter with golden hopes, as is Dan Greaves in the discus, while the remarkable David Weir, a wheelchair racer competing in his fourth Games, aims to turn his three current world titles into three Paralympic golds. In the women’s team Libby Clegg, a visually impaired sprinter, and Hannah Cockcroft, a wheelchair sprinter, are further gold medal prospects.
Cycling should be Britain’s other productive goldmine. The Velodrome witnessed some of the best moments of the host nation’s Olympic Games and through the likes of Sarah Storey, Jody Cundy and Aileen McGlynn should provide stellar Paralympic memories too.