INTERNATIONAL PARALYMPIC DAY:
'The Paralympic Games will be like nothing seen before'
Britain's Paralympic gold medallist Giles Long looks forward to a spectacle defined by human ability not background story
Thursday 08 September 2011
When I was seven I dreamt of going to the Olympics – bone cancer changed my path to the Paralympics but the dream remained. In my mind's eye it was always somewhere far flung but this time it is coming here, to our country. I had never even bothered to dream that possibility because it seemed pointless. But for our athletes that get to compete in London it is not just the chance of a lifetime but the chance of many lifetimes.
The Paralympic Games come to London next year and the event will have evolved almost beyond recognition. Locog's dedication to the Paralympics, combined with Channel 4's commitment as the official broadcaster will mean that the look, feel and coverage of the Paralympic Games will be like nothing seen before. The fully operational demolition site I had outside my hotel window at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta is hard to even comprehend now.
The high point of my Paralympic career was winning the 100 metre butterfly in Sydney 2000, swimming using one arm as many in the S8 class do. I set the world record in the process. It felt so, so easy, as if I could have done the same thing much faster. The elixir all athletes experience when they have broken new ground was in my mind and body and it's a feeling I'll never forget.
I had seen countless classic medal presentations on TV. Some athletes sing their national anthem or cry when given their medal. Some just laugh. When I received mine I felt confused, I didn't want to do any of those things. To this day the only description I can give is to say that as 20,000 people stood for me, I felt I was shining from the inside out.
But there is so much more to Paralympic medals, isn't there? More than other sports because of the human interest stories behind the achievements. Perhaps that's true to some, but not to the athletes. All will have become eligible to compete through birth, accident, disease, trauma ... the list goes on. Often the crushing lows produce wonderfully inspirational stories.
But it doesn't mean anything to the competitors. I had cancer as a teenager but it didn't mean that my competitors were going to go any easier on me. Come 2012, the background stories will be fascinating, enlightening and enthralling. But to the competitors they will be just that – background. Perhaps far more captivating will be the spectacle of human pitted against human. Each pushing themselves to their absolute limit, experiencing fear, awe, disappointment and elation.
For many who watch Paralympic sport for the first time and see the athletes interviewed, it might come as a surprise to hear answers full of the flaws and spark of any other sportsman. You might watch a Paralympic athlete and decide you don't really like them. Feeling guilty? Don't. You didn't when you decided you didn't like that footballer. You know the one I mean.
Everyone has their favourites for 2012 but here are some of the global superstars I'll be looking out for. Firstly, Jerome Singleton of the US. He will be up against Oscar Pistorius in the 100m and beat him at the World Championships. With Pistorius competing at the Olympics too, anything less than gold will be a huge talking point. The GB women's wheelchair basketball team were exceptional at the BT Paralympic World Cup this year and show no signs of coming off the boil. For me, though, the medal generating engine room of the Paralympics GB will be the swimming team – athletes like Ellie Simmonds and David Roberts – although I would say that, wouldn't I?
Someone once said to me: "When I watch sport I see people far more able than me apply themselves and go on to achieve phenomenal things. When I watch Paralympic sport I see people less able than me achieving things I never could either, and that really connects with me." I think that's testament to all Paralympians and I wish them all the very best of luck as we get closer to our Games.
Giles Long is a triple Paralympic gold medallist swimmer and will present Channel 4's coverage of the Paralympics.
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