LONDON: The Paralympic Games begin in London Wednesday, with China tipped to repeat their gold rush of four years ago but hosts Britain aiming to push them hard and give home fans more reasons to cheer.
Just over two weeks after the Olympics closing ceremony, organizers have transformed sports venues and accommodation in readiness for the arrival of some 4,200 athletes with a disability and the 11-day finale to a summer of sport.
Queen Elizabeth II is due to open the Games Wednesday evening, with the Paralympic cauldron lit using flames kindled on Britain’s four highest peaks and 24 hours after a torch relay starting at the spiritual home of the movement.
It was in Stoke Mandeville, southern England, in 1948 that a German Jewish medical doctor organized sports events for World War II veterans with spinal injuries, 12 years before the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960.
The sporting action begins Thursday, with shooting at the imposing 18th century Royal Artillery Barracks set to provide the first gold of the Games in the women’s 10m standing air rifle.
Medals are also up for grabs in the velodrome, with the finals of the men and women’s individual pursuit, in four weight categories in judo at the ExCel Arena and at the Aquatics Center, where 15 swimming finals are to be held.
In the pool, multiple gold medalist Natalie Du Toit is aiming to retire on a high in the sport she has dominated for more than a decade. The South African competes in seven events.
The Games’ showpiece athletics program gets under way Friday, with the highlight Oscar Pistorius, who is seeking to defend his T44 100m, 200m and 400m titles from Beijing.
Pistorius, dubbed the “Blade Runner” because he runs on carbon fiber blades, made history earlier this month by becoming the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, when he ran in the 400m heats and 4x400m relay final.
The 25-year-old is likely to face tough opposition in the blue riband sprint, though, from U.S. athlete Jerome Singleton, the current world champion, as well as Britain’s Jonnie Peacock, who lowered the world record to 10.85 seconds in June.
China have been tipped to be the team to beat, after its Paralympic team swept all aside in Beijing four years ago, with 89 golds and 211 medals in all, more than double that of its nearest rival Britain on both counts.
But its 332 athletes four years ago – the largest-ever Chinese Paralympic delegation – has been cut to 282 and almost half are debutants.
The vice president of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, Jia Yong, admitted that competition away from home was tougher due to the demands of qualification but said he hoped the team would still be among the top three.
The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, said China’s progress – and increased competition – was positive for the development of the four-yearly event.
“In Beijing, China topped the medal table. For Britain to be highly successful here in London is very important and Brazil is coming up on the rails faster than any other, with Rio in four years’ time,” he added. “It’s got to make for good news, for people coming to watch their heroes compete.”
This year’s Paralympics are nearly sold out, with most of the 2.5 million tickets gone – a record – with organizers attributing that to British interest in disabled sport as well as a successful Olympics for the hosts.
Sponsorship and planned television coverage have increased, while the IPC said that a record 1,513 women – more than double the number who took part in Barcelona a decade ago and up from 1,383 in Beijing – will compete this year.
A number of countries are also set to send athletes for the first time, including North Korea, although critics say poorer nations are at a disadvantage in the Paralympics to those that can afford increasingly high-tech gear.