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Beijing's Paralympics can take a bow

By Peter White
BBC disability affairs correspondent

There has never been a Paralympics that has not been hailed the best ever.

Portugal's Alexandrino Silva in the marathon-T54 event in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 17/09/08
Will the perception of disability in China be changed by the Paralympics?
The first time I heard the phrase delivered "live" in the stadium was at Atlanta, which was almost certainly the worst ever.

On Wednesday evening in Beijing, President of the International Paralympic Committee Sir Phillip Craven did not let me down, delivering the mantra word for word.

So how does it stand up to the claim?

Let us do the pluses first, and there are plenty of them.

My own personal abiding memory of the Beijing games, the fourth I have attended, was the crowds.

Disabled athletes over the years have been used to performing at most of their meets to sparse crowds made of friends, family and other team members.

Even at the best of the games - Sydney - there was still an element of "rent-a-crowd" about the attendances.

Many of the audiences were almost entirely made up of children, allocated tickets en bloc as an educational exercise.

The athletes all said the same - that facilities in the village, the stadiums and around the Olympic complex were second to none

They were reminiscent of those schoolboy and schoolgirl hockey internationals that used to be staged at Wembley, where the pitch and decibel level of the cheering were excruciating.

Nothing like that in Beijing but many of the events were total, or almost total, sell-outs.

The Bird's Nest stadium several times had its full complement of 91,000 spectators. The swimming events were full every night. Great attendances too at the basketball.

And when GB quadriplegic wheelchair tennis star Peter Norfolk was winning his gold in the singles, there were more people watching him than turned up to see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the Olympics.

Perhaps people were benefiting from the fact that the Paralympic tickets were considerably cheaper than at the Olympics, and also yielding to a huge curiosity to get inside stadiums like the Bird's Nest?

Another major plus was access. I am guided by the athletes here. I talked to many of them, and they all said the same - that facilities in the village, the stadiums and around the Olympic complex were second to none.

Libby Kosmala, a Paralympian attending her 11th games, said she thought that Beijing's access was "faultless".

Avoidable glitches

Now for a couple of minuses. These reflect as much on the nature of the games themselves, and their management by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), as they do on Beijing.

There were a number of foul-ups in the running of events trackside and poolside.

What is clear is that in terms of rigorous organisation, these games must look as professional as the Olympic counterparts they seek to be compared to

It has been hard to get to the bottom of what led to them, but they need to be sorted if the Paralympics is to take its place as a major sporting event.

For instance, two events were ordered to be re-run. One actually took place, the other re-run was cancelled after the objection was withdrawn.

But the re-run is an odd concept in all but the most extreme cases. To be honest, it smacks of patronising attitudes. Olympic gold medallist Steve Cram said he could not remember a re-run ever being ordered.

In one case a re-run was deemed necessary because of a crash, which led to a disqualification.

The disqualification was fair enough, but ordering a re-run because someone screws up smacks too much of the sports day "oh give them another go" attitude, which has no place in the Paralympics.

The other was caused by an administrative error, a wrong lane allocation. The protest about that should have happened before the race was ever run.

Both of these re-run decisions were reached after the medal ceremonies had taken place - so that athletes who had publicly been cheered suddenly found themselves deprived of that medal.

Whether it was miscommunication between the IPC and local organisers is not clear.

What is clear is that in terms of rigorous organisation, these games must look as professional as the Olympic counterparts they seek to be compared to.

Which leads me to the other matter that must be sorted out before London 2012 - classification.

A job well done

There has to be classification in Paralympic sport. The principle of grading people on the basis of their severity of disability, so that like competes with like, is essential. But classification must be managed better.

In these games, there were a number of examples of people being thrown out of events because they were felt to be less disabled than their classification allowed.

Crash in the women's 5000m T54 final on 08/09/08
A crash in the women's 500m led to a re-run

Clearly, if there is a blatant example of cheating, it must be dealt with. But the answer to that is not expulsion during the games, but a proper, independent and transparent programme of classification before the games ever begin.

If a competitor performs above the level which appears to be consistent with their disability, it should be dealt with after the games.

We cannot have a situation where doing particularly well, is regarded as a reason for re-classification within the games.

Classification is confusing enough for spectators, and I think in London there should be more attempts to explain it to crowds.

What happened here is likely to lower the reputation of the games, which on the whole is rising exponentially.

The Beijing games have done plenty to continue that process, and they should be congratulated on that.

They should also be congratulated on changes to the environment which will provide a permanent legacy for disabled Beijingers for the future.

It seems impossible to think that the exposure of huge numbers of people to disabled athletes performing extraordinary feats would not change the perception of disability in China.

Though whether change will be sustained at the rate achieved by the needs of staging the Paralympics remains to be seen.

Was it the best ever? It is a subjective judgment, but I would say yes. I would put it on a par with Sydney, but with the added dimension of genuine, deeply enthusiastic crowds. Well done, Beijing!

see also
British Paralympians return home
18 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Paralympics 'truly coming home'
18 Sep 08 |  UK News
Paralympic baton passed to London
17 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Weir storms to second Games gold
16 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Pool star Roberts to carry flag
16 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Coe hopes to follow Beijing lead
16 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Archery gold for Brown and Stubbs
13 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Kenny and Stone win cycling golds
13 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
GB storm to gold double in pool
12 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Emotional Pearson wins more gold
11 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
GB collect three equestrian golds
09 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
GB cyclists take five more golds
09 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Kindred clinches second pool gold
09 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
British cyclists win three golds
07 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Simmonds makes history with gold
08 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
Golden haul for GB on opening day
07 Sep 08 |  Disability Sport
A-Z of Paralympic classification
28 Aug 08 |  Disability Sport
Paralympics on the BBC
25 Aug 08 |  Disability Sport
GB Paralympic team for Beijing
24 Jul 08 |  Disability Sport

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