Tanni determined to build on the feelgood factor

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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker