Tanni determined to build on the feelgood factor

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It was not so long ago that those who played sport despite often crippling disabilities would be subjected to patronising pats on the head and politically correct platitudes telling them how brave and wonderful they were. Not any more.

It was not so long ago that those who played sport despite often crippling disabilities would be subjected to patronising pats on the head and politically correct platitudes telling them how brave and wonderful they were. Not any more. When the Paralympics open in Athens on Friday they will not be a mere lip-serving sequel to last month's spectacular show, but a global production that is just as authentic, albeit with a new cast doing their sporting thing somewhat differently.

In Olympic terms, it isn't quite parity for the paras, because by the very size and nature of the event it never really can be. But the Greeks seem determined to ensure that their Paralympic Games will be equally memorable.

"For all of us who have been working for the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games are the same deal," says Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the Athens 2004 diva who will be presiding over them with equal zeal and regality. "We are preparing for these Games with the same passion and we want to give the same picture to the people who will attend them."

The Games run for 12 days until 28 September, with 4,000 competitors from 145 countries taking part in 18 sports, using the same facilities, village and venues as their Olympic counterparts. Britain, most of whose 176 athletes have been preparing at the same Cyprus camp as the Olympians, compete in 15 sports, with particularly strong squads in athletics, swimming and equestrianism. In Sydney four years ago, the Paralympic team became one of the most successful British sporting teams of all time when they won 131 medals (41 gold, 43 silver, 47 bronze), finishing second only to the hosts, Australia, on the overall medal table.

Think Paralympics and, inevitably, you think Tanni Grey-Thompson, who has done more than anyone to normalise attitudes towards sport for the disabled. These are her fifth, and probably final, Games. In Sydney, as in Barcelona, she won four gold medals, and has been one of the world's supreme wheelchair racers. This time, she says, she will be more than happy to do a Kelly Holmes and come home with two. Born with spina bifida, the 35-year-old mother from Redcar was once among those who received the pats on the head and was told how brave and wonderful she was. "Actually I'm neither," she says. "I'm simply an athlete who uses a wheelchair instead of a discus or javelin to set world records."

Motherhood has not lessened her desire to compete and win. "When I was pregnant it was a really good break for me. It gave me renewed motivation. These Games will be more competitive, with the opposition much stronger, particularly the Chinese, who are really getting their Paralympic act together because of the Games in Beijing."

Sydney, says Grey-Thompson, was where the public perception of the Paralympics changed dramatically. "For us it was an athletic Disneyland. It was where magic happened."

Grey-Thompson has again entered in the 100, 200, 400 and 800m, but will have to fight against huge odds in the 200m, which features disability categories for the first time. She sees the main thrust of her competition coming from the US and Italy. "It's taken a long time for people to realise that what we are doing is real sport. The competition is really professional." And with that professionalism comes the usual baggage which burdens "real sport", including out-of-competition drugs-testing, and agents. Some Paralympians can make a few bob, and a handful have been known to cheat.

Chef de mission Phil Lane, the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, says the competition is bound to be tough, with 38 more nations competing in this Games than in Sydney. "But this is the best prepared team we have ever sent. We set some fairly demanding qualification requirements, and the team is a bit leaner than last time.

"We think we have a great new prospect in Jenny Ridley, who comes into wheelchair racing from wheelchair basketball. She has already set a couple of world-best times. In fact, we are in with a shout in most sports, including boccia, which is a bit like boules." Legendary track athletes Bob Matthews and Noel Thatcher will also feature in the British team. Athens will be Matthews' seventh Games. This remarkable blind distance-runner from Leamington Spa has already won eight Paralympic golds, while Thatcher, the Essex-based, visually impaired physiotherapist who has won golds in the distance events at every Games since 1984, will carry the British flag.

Mike Brace, the BPA chairman, says Paralympic sport has moved from being a disability spectacle to a sporting spectacle, which will be reflected in 90 minutes of BBC television coverage every evening. "There has been a sea change in the public attitude. They are now saying, 'Hold on. These guys are actually quite good'. Whether they have legs or not, or can't see, doesn't seem to matter any more. They are watching sport which is both competitive and exciting."

But here's the rub. Even with Lottery funding, it has still cost £1m to get the British team to Athens, and the money has not all been raised yet. Says Brace: "There will be nothing in the kitty when we get back. We'll only have operating costs for a couple of months, and the big question will be whether we can retain all our staff. We are hoping that a good medal haul will convince the powers that be that we have used the money well."