Paralympics start next week

With the Opening Ceremony on Thursday 29th August, the 2012 Paralympics Games begin in action the following day, Friday week, 30th August.

‘Paralympics’ means ‘parallel Olympics’ and does not, as many have imagined from the suggestiveness of the name, imply specific disability.

With the London 2012 Games already, from ticket sales, the most popular in history, we have a lot to watch and a lot to learn.

Doping control of course applies to all athletes but disabled athletes have an additional hurdle, with their disability itself open to challenge and athletes summoned for a classification check, if that is questioned or questionable.

The London 2012 website says: ‘Classification is a unique element of Paralympic sports, intended to ensure fair competition. As each sport at the Paralympic Games requires different skills and competencies, the impact of impairment on the performance of the athletes varies. That’s why each sport has its own unique classification rules.’

All very straightforward – but the competitive spirit is not disabled and when an athlete is continually successful, competitors raise questions about the security of their classification.

This has regularly happened to Scotland’s Stephen McGuire who, with elder brother Frank, is in the Team GB squad for Boccia – a form of wheelchair bowls. Both brothers are muscular dystrophy sufferers. Stephen has graphically described one of his classification checks as being ‘body searched’ with the searchers looking for muscle tone.

The rest of us have never imagined a body search as being just that.

The McGuire brothers compete as individuals and also in the pairs competition where they are ranked second in the world.

A sport bound to attract massive television audiences is what the schedule for the Games euphemistically describes as ‘Wheelchair Rugby’ but was more accurately christened in Canada as ‘Murderball’.

These wheelchairs, with their riders,  look more like daleks – hard shell chariots with wide flaring floor length skirts – built for deliberate and strategic collision. Think self-propelled dodgem rugby and you’re nearer the reality. Tackling is tackling hard and spills are literally spills in this supercharged and thrilling sport. A clue to its character is that key members of the support team are welders.

Rowing is in the Paralympics for only the second time, with 96 rowers – 46 of each gender – in contest at the world’s best rowing venue, Eton Dorney.

The rowing competitions run from 31st August to 2nd September, all over 1,000 metres. There are four events for each gender, men’s and women’s Single Sculls (AS), a mixed Coxed Four (LTA) and a mixed Double Sculls (TA).

The bracketed letters after each event relate to their restriction to the degree of functional ability the rowers have – from the ability to move only arms and shoulders (AS), to trunk and arms (TA), to having the use of legs, trunk and arms (LTA).

Athletes may compete in a higher physical ability event but not a lower one – so someone with the use of trunk and arms might be in the crew for the mixed Coxed Four with fellow athletes who can also use their legs (LTA) – but could not compete in the single sculls, which is for those who can move only arms and shoulders (AS).

Team GB topped the medal table in the sport’s first outing at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.

By the way, there was a score for popular opinion in reversing the intention of  the truly disabled Westminster panjandrums – who had unbelievably assumed there would be far fewer ‘gongs’ awarded to disabled athletes.

When this emerged very recently, the right thinking response made sure that these woodentops were speedily sent home ‘tae think again’.

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