Paralympics offer a sporting lesson

It seemed like deja vu all over again late this week in and around OAKA, the Olympic sports complex. The International Broadcast Center still looms, if no longer teems, and the press center has been moved into the bowels of the main stadium, still adorned with its signature blue-paneled Calatrava roof. For the Athens Olympic Games are not past, but present; just in another form and with a new group of athletes. Much of Athens is missing it, which is a pity, but it is still not too late. For the Paralympics, which began on September 17, run to Tuesday evening and offer four more packed days of sport, along with a final chance for locals to see the venues still in their Olympic garlands, and one last taste of outdoor spectator activity before this extraordinary summer heads off into the sunset. I came looking for something truly different, as those whose anticipation and curiosity outstrips their preparation tend to do. I don’t know exactly what; crowd lectures in disability sensibility, perhaps, or maybe demonstrations of specialized Paralympic sports like boccia or goalball on the OAKA grounds. Yet the pulse-quickening roar of the crowd and the old but familiar game of figuring out how to get around the endless metal barriers that still, frustratingly, ring the stadium, all felt familiar. And after a hot day of circulating among venues and sports in the Olympic complex, I was left with a sense of how similar the Paralympics are, in many ways, to the «main» Olympics just passed: from the banner-waving fans and loudspeaker music to the athletes and medal ceremonies on the field, to the yellow flame once again flaring out of the pencil-like Olympic cauldron high above and the white dirigible humming in the sky high above that. For these are «parallel» Games, and just as September offers a more benign and bucolic version of summer than does burning August, so too do the Paralympics offer up a spectacle that is, in many ways, a better sort of Olympics, like the «real» Games used to be; smaller, more intimate, easier to attend, less security-driven, more accessible, more human. The organizers aren’t as harassed, the athletes aren’t whisked away by security guards, and the spectators are less hungry for records and wins than there to appreciate the things humans can do when confronted by obstacles. The nice and necessary social lessons of tolerance are implicit; essentially it is some excellent sport that is on offer, for a fraction of the price or hassle of last month. The Paralympics are finally on the map as a big sporting event in their own right, with close to 4,000 athletes from 136 countries competing for 3,337 total medals and their own moment in the spotlight. The hefty medals total results from a complicated classification system (explained in 12 single-spaced pages of text) in six disability groups and multitudes of permutations within those, and which, in itself, has generated controversy at these Games – as has doping, with three confirmed cases and counting. Three sports The main stadium for the Paralympics has a setup similar to the regular Games. Like any track meet, several events are going on at once; on Thursday morning, there was a discus competition at one end and relay teams lining up for the men’s 4x400m race at the other, with volunteers hustling around rearranging markers. And like a lot of preliminary competitions at the Olympics, the stadium was far from full. The bulk of spectators were school groups (which accounts for the noise level), photographing friends and enjoying themselves. Wheelchair relays use every second lane rather than all of them, so the previous racer can glide to a halt without bashing into another one after his leg of the race is over. There’s no baton, for obvious reasons (both hands are needed to turn the wheels, ferociously); a tag signifies the changeover. Otherwise, the principle’s the same; racers trying like crazy to outdo the other guys. And within 10 minutes of my arrival, a new world record was set; by China. Five minutes after that there was a medals ceremony, for men’s high jump (category F42); the Chinese won gold and silver. Clearly, the national push for dominance at Beijing 2008 extends to the Paralympics too. Over at the Indoor Arena, the action involved other wheelchair competition, in another regular Olympic sport, basketball, which long used to be charitably called a «non-contact» sport. Don’t tell that to a wheelchair basketballer, as they tear up and down the court, dodging or colliding with other chairs, getting knocked over after shots and then popping themselves upright again without fuss or a helping hand. Germany was playing the US, and it was easy enough to get caught up in describing the game’s course rather than the players’ efforts. A tenuous US lead was whittled down until the Germans tied it at 36 midway through the third quarter. The Americans then poured it on and won going away, 71-49, partly thanks to a deft passing game that included some stylish, around-the-back passes. Wheelchair defense may even be tougher, and possibly dirtier, than in the normal game because not just bodies but chairs are used for defending, not always in gracious ways. Wheels sometimes came off, and players got upended continuously; a fierce-looking Lars Lehmann, a leading German player, was clobbered in the face as he drove for a layup. Somehow I never expected a technical foul at a wheelchair game, but there it was, along with some three-point shots, which require a great deal more effort than a standing long-range shot would. It’s a big mistake to think that people turn into angels just because they lose the use of their legs; this sport is tough, and was hard-fought to the final bell even after the contest was decided. And this was not wheelchair rugby, a gladiator-like featured sport of the Paralympics. Back outdoors again at dusk, and once again in the familiar ring of the Olympic tennis center, where the likes of Anastasia Myskina and Eleni Daniilidou prowled just weeks ago, another sport on wheels was on feature. Wheelchair tennis offers an impressive and unexpected sight. Half a tennis court is a big expanse to cover for one person, and the amount of ground that can be covered by someone pushing two wheels and wielding a racket at the same time is almost phenomenal. The game is more finesse- than power-oriented, unlike able-bodied professional tennis these days; and the serves can’t compare in terms of speed, but this is made up for by some nifty shot placement. About the only concession to disability is the allowance for the ball to bounce twice instead of once before hitting it. This match featured a rangy Japanese, Satoshi Saida, against yet another great Dutch player, Robin Amerlaan; his country has dominated wheelchair tennis since Monique Kalkman put the sport on the map in the late 1980s and 1990s, thanks to proactive social programs that give athletes training facilities and equipment (an athletic wheelchair can run up to 2,500 euros). Getting the word out Yet another parallel with last month’s Games is the debate over crowds and ticket sales. These are reported to be robust, yet some of the stadiums have been regrettably far from full. Through September 13, the announced total sold was 276,567; five days later the figure was close to 400,000; now the total is over 600,000. There are some good crowds – basketball, for example, claimed over 10,000 spectators (and this on a weekday mid-afternoon), although tennis was far less than half full. The availability of day passes for multiple sports, a clever innovation from Sydney in 2000, actually led organizers to turn some ticket holders away from the swimming facility this week. A festive crowd mills around the Olympic complex’s open grounds, too, another bonus of the flexible tickets. There has been criticism leveled at the organizers for selling so many tickets to schools and school groups, which is a rather nonsensical complaint given that this an ideal target group. Where better to start with sensitization than with the next generation? If you had seen the schoolkids who were mobbing Nicolas Neumann, groping his new gold medal (in javelin, F36 class) and fighting to get their picture taken with him, you would have known. The medal winner from South Africa was absolutely beaming at the attention. And what of the media? Miriam Wilkens, spokesperson for the International Paralympic Committee, said that some 3,000 media representatives were accredited, the most ever at a Paralympics; 1,700 representing radio and television, and 1,300 for print media. US media are lacking, and US television – so dominant at the Olympic Games – is conspicuous by its absence, an anomaly IPC officials hope to address in the future. In contrast, Europeans and Asians dominate those doing the coverage. A glance around the all-but-empty press area led to a bit of doubt as to the overall figures, but Wilkens firmly assured that most of them were out at the venues, following the sports, as they should be. Another sign, perhaps, that the Paralympics are now a premiere sports competition that features trained athletes and cutting-edge technology in wheelchairs and prosthetics, not just a lesson in feel-good diplomacy. And that, as much as anything, is a sign that these Games, now in their 12th version, have come of age, usefully following the regular Games to take advantage of newly minted venues and organizational facilities, yet standing alone in their own right. And standing tall too, metaphorically if not always physically.

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