China set to dazzle

2008-09-03 09:06

Beijing - Still basking in the glory of staging a successful Olympics, China is about to step into the limelight again with what promises to be a dazzling Paralympics in which its athletes will dominate.

With more than 4 000 athletes from around the world competing in 20 sports, the Paralympics, which start on Saturday, will be staged in the iconic venues used for last month's Olympics such as the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube.

The host nation, which topped the medals table at the 2004 Athens Paralympics with 63 golds ahead of Britain and Canada, is widely expected to dominate again - and even more comprehensively than they did at the Olympics.

"China is currently very strong across the board in Paralympic sport and, having seen their efforts at the Olympic Games, have shown that they intend to fully benefit from the home advantage of these Games," said British Chef De Mission Phil Lane.

"It's highly unlikely given the numbers competing that any nation will be able to beat China in the medals table."

Aside from China's seemingly inevitable domination of the 11-day event, much attention will focus on South Africa's double amputee track sensation Oscar Pistorius - dubbed "Blade Runner" due to the specially adapted carbon fibre blades with which he has won a host of titles.

Motor accident

His compatriot Natalie du Toit, who finished 16th in the women's 10km marathon swim in last month's Olympics, is also likely to be a star in the pool.

The South African, who lost her lower left leg in a motor accident, won five golds and one silver in Athens, and is looking for another huge haul of medals in Beijing.

The 20 sports include athletics, swimming, powerlifting, wheelchair fencing and two versions of football - five-a-side and seven-a-side - as well as the lesser-known goalball and boccia.

Although China will pull out all the stops to produce a stunning event, the Paralympics takes place in a country in which the handicapped have long suffered discrimination in social, education and employment sectors.

The staging of these Games is part of efforts to change that, according to Jiang Xiaoyu, vice-president of the Beijing Olympic organising committee, which is also running the Paralympics.

"We are trying to put in place a social atmosphere that cares about the handicapped and this is a challenge," he said.

Authorities have made Beijing more friendly for disabled people by, for example, setting up the country's first fleet of easy-access taxis and making famous tourist spots such as the Great Wall accessible to wheelchairs.

China's motto

And huge efforts have been made to show that China is treating the Paralympics with as much importance as the Olympics, including keeping anti-pollution measures in place.

China's motto for the Paralympics, comparing it with the Olympics, is: "Two Games with Equal Splendour."

But China's 83 million disabled people undoubtedly still face misunderstanding and discrimination.

In one blunder highlighting the problems, organisers of the Games were forced to apologise in May for a training handbook for volunteers describing some physically disabled people as "isolated, unsocial and introspective".

Nevertheless, Beijing's efforts to improve have been applauded.

"The level of accessibility (in Beijing) is absolutely fantastic and it's a first class job," International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Philip Craven told the China Daily newspaper.

Like the Olympics, the Paralympics have not been free of scandal and there will again be a focus in Beijing to stamp out any cheating.

In Athens, a total of 680 doping tests were carried out, resulting in 10 anti-doping rule violations, according to the IPC.

The history of the event dates back to 1948, when Sir Ludwig Guttmann organised a sports competition involving World War II veterans with a spinal cord injury in Stoke Mandeville, England.

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