The Paralympic Games, which open in London today, could change people's attitude towards disability for ever, the capital's Mayor, Boris Johnson, has suggested. It is not hard to see why he says that. Almost 5,000 athletes will compete in 11 days of sport in which the British team has been given a target of 103 medals – almost one per hour of the competition. The festivities promise to rekindle the popular euphoria engendered by the London Olympics – from which the nation has suffered unwelcome withdrawal symptoms ever since.
Indeed, many believe that this second course in a great banquet of athletics, archery, cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, swimming, weightlifting and wheelchair rugby will be all the more inspiring for the fact that the contestants have surmounted so many difficulties on the way. Britain's greatest Paralympian, Baroness Grey-Thompson – who holds 11 gold medals, six London marathon wins and 30 world records – has, however, warned that even such an impressive event may not transform deep-seated discriminatory social attitudes towards disabled people as much as perhaps it should. The large funding gap between Olympic and Paralympic athletes is but one indicator. A more disturbing one is to be found in the week of protest which disability activists today launch against Atos, the Paralympic sponsor that runs the tests commissioned by the Government in an effort to curb sickness benefits.
Lady Grey-Thompson fears that the next generation of disabled sportsmen and women could be held back by Government plans to restrict the Disability Living Allowance which facilitated her participation in competitive sport. That – and the ending of the Independent Living Fund, local authority spending cuts and a retreat from educating disabled children in mainstream schools – could sap the inspiration that the coming days ought to bring to the next Paralympians.
Such misgivings are only exacerbated by the fact that the Paralympics are today returning to their spiritual home. The Games grew from the pioneering work of the refugee German doctor Sir Ludwig Guttmann, who revolutionised the treatment of veterans with spinal cord injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital after the Second World War. The stories of bravery, tenacity and gutsy achievement he made possible then will, over the coming days, find modern parallels to excite and exult us in the example of the para-equestrian David Lee Pearson, the wheelchair marathon athlete David Weir, the double amputee blade-runner Oscar Pistorius, or the rower Tom Aggar. Not to mention Ellie Simmonds who, despite dwarfism, became the youngest Briton to win a gold medal at the Beijing Paralympics.
These will be Games which, as Prince Harry has said in his royal greeting, are about ability rather than disability. The motto is "Spirit in Motion", and the applicability of that to the whole nation will be underscored in the victory parade through the streets of London next month. A common misconception is that the name Paralympics is some kind of veiled reference to paraplegia. Its meaning, in fact, is beside or alongside. This is a competition held in parallel with the Olympics and in the same spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. In the far-off days of those first Stoke Mandeville games, the participants were patients with injuries which once led them to be seen as people beyond hope. Today they, and their successors, are a source of hope to the whole world.