Paralympics to open in style

2008-09-06 08:00
Beijing - More than 4 000 athletes are set for the opening on Saturday of what promises to be a dazzling Paralympics, with the head of the international movement predicting a "fantastic" Games.

Competitors from nearly 150 countries will battle for 472 gold medals in 20 sports at the iconic venues used for last month's Olympics such as the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube.

"There are more countries than ever, more sports than ever and more athletes than ever. This is great news for the Paralympic movement," said International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven.

"They're going to be tremendous sports events, an incredible opportunity for Paralympians to just show what they can do, how they can perform, how they are very much the equal of their Olympic peers.

"I'm not going to tell you they're going to be the greatest Games before they even start but they're going to be fantastic."

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 at last month's 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.

Aside from China's seemingly inevitable domination of the Games, 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.

Carrying the flag at the opening ceremony for South Africa will be Natalie du Toit, who finished 16th in the women's 10km marathon swim in the Olympics.

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 in Beijing.

The opening ceremony, involving thousands of performers, will start at 20:00 (12:00 GMT) and will be attended by dignitaries and sports ministers from around the globe.

The 20 sports at the 13th Paralympics, which ends on September 17, 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 disabled 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.

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

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.

But the IPC's Craven said he was looking forward to a clean Games.

"We have worked very hard over the last four years both from a testing point of view and also from an education point of view and we're very hopeful for good results," he said.

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

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