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Page last updated at 05:33 GMT, Thursday, 6 September 2007 06:33 UK

China's Paralympic challenge

By Elizabeth Hudson

The Games organisers are putting on a spectacular show
Games organisers put on a big show at last year's mascot unveiling

China is the world's top Paralympic nation after making rapid progress in disability sport in recent years.

But can its hosting of next year's Paralympics improve the lot of the 80m disabled people living in China?

With a year to go, BBC Sport looks at whether China is on track to deliver the Games - and the social issues with which the country will have to deal.

WHAT DISABILITY DIFFICULTIES ARE THERE IN CHINA?

Like any major city, Beijing has issues over accessibility.

But Michael Bristow, China correspondent for BBC News Online, says the city is not made for pedestrians, let alone anyone with a disability.

I was followed up the street by curious schoolgirls and there was a guy who cycled into the back of a stationary trailer because he was staring at me
Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson on using a wheelchair in Beijing

"The city is currently going through a major overhaul in preparation for the two Olympic events, but very few new facilities seem to have taken into consideration people with disabilities," he said.

"Wheelchair users could find it very difficult to use the subway system, buses and taxis. Pavements often have high kerbs, and sometimes the only way to cross a road is to use an overhead bridge, which all have steep steps.

"City chiefs say they are introducing new buses that can accommodate disabled people, and Paralympic venues should also be fully accessible.

"In addition, a few five-star hotels say they have disability-friendly facilities, but once outside the hotel doors, anyone who uses a wheelchair would find it difficult to move around the city."

Beijing Paralympics mascot Fu Niu Lele
Games organisers unveiled the mascot Fu Niu Lele last year

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who visited Beijing late last year, said that she did not believe that many people in Beijing had seen anyone in a wheelchair before.

"There were a lot of people who stopped and stared at me and it wasn't because they knew me as an athlete," she admitted.

"When we went to Tiananmen Square people were taking my photo. I was followed up the street by curious schoolgirls and there was a guy who cycled his bike into the back of a stationary trailer because he was staring at me.

"When I arrived at my hotel, the staff rushed very quickly to help me and almost tried to grab me and help me out of the cab.

"At home, people would watch you struggle before they would ask if you wanted help so I'm not used to that sort of helpfulness.

"I think there may have been an assumption that because I was in a wheelchair I needed more help than I did."

CHINA'S PARALYMPIC HISTORY

In the past, China has not been one of the stronger nations in Paralympic sport and at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, they won only 25 medals to finish 12th in the medal table.

But since the announcement that Beijing would be hosting the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics, they have ploughed money into both able-bodied and disabled sport.

The Athens Paralympics was a major watershed for Chinese athletes as they won 141 medals, including 63 golds, to top the table and mark themselves out as a key player in disability sport, forcing other nations to sit up and take notice.

Their sense of national pride means that a huge effort is being put in to ensure China are the top nation in their home Games.

As well as the intensive training regimes, more and more athletes are being brought to overseas competitions to test themselves against competitors from other nations.

There is little doubt that they will dominate across the 20 Paralympic sports and other nations face a stiff test to try to make an impact.

WHAT SORT OF GAMES ARE THEY PROMISING?

The International Paralympic Committee president Sir Phil Craven told BBC Sport that he was expecting the biggest and best Paralympics ever.

Organisers are expecting 4,000 athletes from 150 countries to take part in 471 events across 20 sports when the event gets under way on 6 September 2008.

"The Chinese organisers have said that the Paralympics will be a Games of equal splendour to the Olympics and from the meetings we have had with them, they are now showing they really mean it," he said.

IPC president Sir Phil Craven
IPC president Sir Phil Craven believes China will host a memorable Games

"For example, I've seen the first draft of the programme for the opening ceremony, which looked amazing and it will be spectacular.

"We certainly have no worries about the facilities, which are absolutely top class, but earlier this year I went to see the Paralympic village which is state-of-the-art.

"It had a real simplicity of design and a high quality of fittings and in the eight-bedroomed apartment, all three bathrooms were wheelchair accessible which is crucially important for our athletes."

WILL THE GAMES BE A SUCCESS?

With an estimated 80m disabled people in China, one of the most important questions is whether the Games will change the lives of ordinary disabled people afterwards.

Sun Weide, spokesman for the Beijing Olympic Games' organising committee, said the Paralympics are as important as the Olympics to the city.

The main stadium in Beijing will
Work on the main stadium in Beijing is continuing

"The government hopes the event will raise awareness about the country's disabled people," he said.

"The Beijing Paralympics will provide us with an excellent chance to promote awareness so people will show more consideration towards people with disabilities.

"It will also give the city a chance to upgrade its facilities for disabled people."

Tanni Grey-Thompson is also hopeful that the profile of the Games will allow Chinese people see what elite disabled athletes can do.

"I don't think the Paralympics will change China as a whole - not yet," she admitted.

"But if Beijing changes its attitudes then the effect has got to spread wider than that."

BBC Sport will be broadcasting extensive coverage of the Paralympics, which start on 6 September 2008.

see also
GB 'may drop in Paralympic ranks'
06 Sep 07 |  Disability sport
Grey-Thompson relieved to retire
13 May 07 |  Disability sport
BPA launches fundraising appeal
23 Jan 07 |  Disability sport
Beijing bound
20 Dec 05 |  Disability sport
Athens says subdued goodbye
28 Sep 04 |  Disability sport


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