Village people bring Stratford back to life for the Paralympics

It all went quiet for a bit – but now the Paralympic athletes are arriving in force. Tom Peck meets a few medal hopefuls

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The Independent Online

Seven-ft tall basketballers are perusing the merchandise store. Kenyan middle-distance runners are having their hair done in the beauty salon. Tunisian racers have been having their wheelchairs mended. With under a week to go until the Paralympic Games opening ceremony, the athletes village is open for business, again.

About 2,500 Paralympic athletes and delegates checked into the village at the Olympic Park in Stratford yesterday, including 400 wheelchair users. Heathrow has built special lifts and other facilities in preparation, while airlines and international trains have been customising carriages to transport them all.

Jaco Velloen, the South African wheelchair basketball team's 29-year-old power forward, all 6ft 11 of him, was among the first to venture down to the athletes' private "High Street" in the village yesterday aftternoon. "The rest of the team are in bed," he told The Independent. "We've had a pretty long flight. Me, I'm just trying to take it all in. It's difficult to comprehend you know. I've only ever heard all the stories before."

It is his first Paralympics. Velloen has a prosthetic leg below the knee. A rugby injury to cartilage in his ankle when he was 11 became infected and gangrenous, and doctors had to amputate.

The first British Paralympians made their way to the village from their prep camp in Bath yesterday. Thousands more from all around the world are expected in the coming few days.

They will bring with them all manner of specialist sporting equipment. British Airways is flying in 300 wheelchairs, firearms, weapon bags, physiotherapist cases, bike boxes, tandem bikes, bow and arrows, hand cycles and boccia kits for the 12 days of the games. Andy Lord, BA operations director, said it had been a "mammoth operation". "It is a privilege to fly thousands of athletes, their coaching teams and their sporting equipment into London for the Paralympic Games and follows on from the great service we delivered for the Olympic Games," he said.

Liang Koh, a 28-year-old Malaysian table tennis player with cerebral palsy, and his partner, 25-year-old Mohamad Azwar Bakar were among their more straightforward passengers. "I am just trying to concentrate now," said Liang Koh. "I want to go and watch Chelsea or Arsenal, but not yet, not til after."

Agnes Olouch, one of Kenya's team leaders, was the first person in to the newly reopened hair and beauty salon, by some distance the most popular facility in the village. "I wanted to get it done before everyone else gets here," she said. As with the Olympics, Kenya are expected to win medals in middle and long-distance running. China are expected to dominate the medal table, as they did in Beijing.

ParalympicsGB have been set a minimum target of 103 medals, one more than their haul from Beijing. Though given Great Britain's success in the Olympics, the public will hope the Paralympics can do far better. The upper range of their target is for 155 medals, from at least 12 different sports. Among Britain's highest hopes are Ellie Simmonds – the poster girl for the Games, after she won two golds in the pool at the age of only 13 in China four years ago – and Jonnie Peacock and David Weir on the track.

* The King of Jordan is taking a personal interest in the case of three members of his country's Paralympian squad facing serious sex changes, a court has been told. Two power-lifters and a trainer appeared in a Northern Ireland court yesterday charged with offences against children and women, including sexual assault and causing a child to engage in sexual activity. Trainer Faisal Hammash, 35, and power-lifters Omar Sami Qaradhi, 31, and Motaz Al-Junad, 45, were granted bail after the king's intervention.

Paralympic torch lit atop UK's highest peaks

The flames that will light the Paralympic torch were ignited on top of the UK's four highest mountains yesterday.

Four groups of Scouts trekked up Scafell Pike, England's highest peak, Slieve Donard in Northern Ireland, Snowdon in Wales and Ben Nevis in Scotland – the UK's highest point – to light the flame The climbers, made up of disabled and non-disabled volunteers, all arrived at the summit of each mountain at different points, where they struck metal against a rough steel surface to make the necessary sparks.

Each flame was then placed in a miner's lantern and brought down to the base, from where it will be transferred to London for a day of Paralympic celebration.