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Friday, 2 August, 2002, 07:28 GMT 08:28 UK

New era for disability sports

By Mike Burnett
BBC Sport Online in Manchester

Commonwealth Games organisers are already touting Manchester as the biggest and best Games ever.

That remains to be seen, but no-one can deny their achievement in one very important area.

This is the first time athletes with disabilities have been fully integrated into a major competition for able-bodied competitors.

"It was important to us to make sure the disabled athletes were just part of the regular programme"
Peter Knowles
Manchester 2002

There is no separate programme, no separate medal table and no separate living quarters.

In Manchester, they are all just athletes competing for the same thing - glory for their country.

Around 150 athletes from 20 nations have made the journey to the north of England to compete in five events - athletics, swimming, lawn bowls, table tennis and weightlifting.

"It was important to us to make sure that the disabled athletes were just part of the regular programme," said Manchester 2002's assistant director of sport Peter Knowles.

"That's how we want people to see these events at the Games."

It is a move that has drawn in more crowds to watch disabled sport.

A packed stadium watched vision-impaired Nigerian athlete Adekunle Adesoji shatter his own world record in the 100m for Elite Athletes With A Disability (EAD) on Wednesday.

Elsewhere, South African Natalie du Toit received a loud cheer on her way to victory in the women's EAD 50m freestyle final at the Aquatics Centre.

It certainly shows how far the movement has come in the last few years, especially in its perception by the general public.

Four-time Paralympic gold medallist Tanni Grey-Thompson is quick to point out things have not always been so easy.

"When I was elected for my first Paralympics at Seoul in 1988 I was asked if I trained," the Welsh wheelchair athlete revealed.

"The boss of a friend of mine said wheelchair athletics was unfair as it depended how fast the person pushing me went."

The landmark nature of the Games at Manchester cannot be emphasised enough, but campaigners are already looking to the next stage.

It seems that by the time the next Commonwealth Games rolls around in Australia, Manchester could already look dated.

"We see it as a start and look forward to Melbourne 2006," said Paralympic Committee president Philip Craven.

"Melbourne will have moved on. We hope to increase the programme to include more sports."

However, it is unlikely that the Olympics will follow the Commonwealth Games' example, at least, for the next few years.

The sheer scale of the Olympics and the Paralympics makes the thought of putting the two together an impossible dream for now.

Also some EAD athletes enjoy the exclusivity of the Paralympics.

"The Manchester Games is one of the biggest breakthroughs for us, but I still think the Paralympics is better," said Australian 800m wheelchair athlete Louise Sauvage.

"Sydney 2000 was the highest buzz of my career."

The Paralympics might be regarded by most as better, but Manchester 2002 still has an important legacy.

As well as public awareness, the Games has sparked more co-operation between the athletes themselves.

Going to the Games as one team has forced domestic governing bodies in both able-bodied and disabled sports to acknowledge each other.

"Even in countries like Kenya, both sets of athletes are co-ordinating much better with each other," explained Knowles.

Manchester 2002 might claim to be edgier and more competitive than previous Games, but in one way, it is still very much living up to its 'Friendly Games' tag.

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