The record breakers: Why are there so many world bests being demolished at the London Paralympics?


Shortly after midday today, Yunidis Castillo charged across the finishing line in the Olympic Stadium in a world record time and became the first woman in the Paralympic history to win a 100 metres sprint in less than 12 seconds.

In any other sporting tournament, there would have been time to savour such an uplifting achievement by watching a few replays and discussing the finer points of the Cuban sprinter’s performance. But in the 2012 Paralympics, spectators barely have time to draw breath in what has become an unceasing procession of record-breaking sporting endeavour.

In the morning track and field session alone today, the 80,000 crowd were treated to four new world bests . On Monday, eight new world records were set in the Aquatics Centre before lunch. So far, the London Paralympics has provided some 140 world and 230 Games records. All that remains to be seen is whether the 2012 haul of world bests - an average of 23 a day - exceeds the 279 set four years ago in Beijing.

Such extraordinary success begs the question of why, when the London Olympics saw a total of 25 world records, its Paralympic successor is likely to see ten-fold more planet-beating performances?

The answer lies in a complex cocktail of factors that range from the comparative youth of the modern Paralympics to the role of technology that has helped athletes whether able-bodied or disabled; from the increasing professionalization of Paralympic sport to the sheer brute determination and physical prowess of the 4,200 competitors.

Organisers yesterday insisted it was the latter of these two influences, rather than the stormy debates epitomised by Oscar Pistorius this week that surround equipment such as the running blades of amputee athletes, which lies at the heart of the deluge of world-beating performances that has rained down on Stratford and the other Paralympic venues.

Craig Spence, spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee, said: “The fact is our athletes are getting better, more are training full time. This is not just a hobby sport, this is professional sport at its best. Some of the countries are enjoying far better levels of funding, which in turn is resulting in better results.

“I wouldn’t like to put better results down to technology because a lot of the athletes are still competing on the same technology they had in Beijing. I’d like to put it down to their hard work.”

Indeed, money does matter in achieving results. ParalympicsGB will have received £49.2m in the four years ending in 2013 to support its elite athletes while other nations, in particular China, have been pouring funds into developing their top disabled competitors, albeit at a lower rate than for able-bodied sport. Ukrainian swimmer Maksym Veraksa is set to collect the sort of gold-medal bonus of which his British counterparts, whose income from Lottery funding is capped at £30,000, can only dream. If Veraksa meets his target he will have earned £640,000 across the Beijing and London Games. Russia pays its seven-a-side sight-impaired football team 6,000 euros a month each to play full time.

But while the immutable instinct of every athlete to go further, faster, higher lies at the root of every record, one of the principal reasons why Paralympians set so many world bests lies in the comparative novelty of the movement.

Experts suggest that the Paralympics, which was only held alongside the Olympics for the first time in 1988, is about 30 years behind its senior cousin in terms of reaching point at which the quantity - and improvement margin - of world records diminishes to the hundredths of seconds and fractions of centimetres seen in able-bodied sport.

For the moment, the leaps in performance can be astonishing. On Monday night, El Amin Chentouf of Morocco shaved an enormous 30 seconds off the previous world record in the 5,000m for blind and visually-impaired runners with a time of 13 minutes 53.77.

Professor Steve Haake [CORRECT], of Sheffield Hallam University, said: “It is something you see in all sports that when in their earlier stages there are rapid improvements in performance. In the Olympics, we have seen performances in women’s events, which were generally introduced later than those for men, improve more rapidly in percentage terms. We are seeing the same phenomenon in the Paralympics. As a result, there are these rapid jumps in performance which will eventually level out in a way that we now see in the Olympics.”

It is a measure of the increased depth and breadth of Paralympic sport that records are being broken – and medals won - by athletes from more countries than ever before. Nearly 70 countries have so far won medals in London, already equalling the total for Beijing, while the list of world record-breaking nations includes Macedonia, Serbia, Belarus and Nigeria, which has set seven new bests in weightlifting. The technical attributes of the Olympic Stadium running track and the Aquatics Centre pool, with their state-of-the-art design have also been a factor in setting historic times.

Nonetheless, the traditional and stubborn divides of the Paralympics persist with a handful of richer nations dominating the medal and record tables and some competitors from the developing world effectively barred from competing because of the prohibitive cost of equipment which can reach £15,000 for a set of prosthetic racing blades or £4,000 for a racing wheelchair.

Ultimately, however, the mark of success for the Paralympics will be when headlines are written about how few – rather than how many – world records are broken.

Mr Spence said: “[British gold medal-winning wheelchair racer] David Weir put it best. He said, ‘Look, world records used to be broken by ten, 15 seconds when I first got involved in Paralympic sport’. The margin of people breaking world records is coming down, and that shows the top athletes are evening out.”

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