NEWS

Subdued yet hopeful ending to Paralympics

The closing of the Paralympic Games of Athens, which was already to be a more modest affair than the glitzy finale to the Olympics last month, was taken a further notch down following the road accident that killed seven teenagers on Monday morning. The tragedy had a special resonance for the Paralympics, as the school group had been en route to watch the Games, just as over 70,000 schoolchildren attended during the 11 days of Games and even participated in the medals ceremonies. The head of the International Paralympic Committee, Phil Craven, acknowledged at a final-day press conference that the Games were finishing on a sad note (and affirmed that they would, in fact, have an official ending, despite initial rumors of cancellation). Yet he pronounced himself «very upbeat» on the overall events and even said the Games had had a «mind-blowing effect» on Greece. At ATHOC’s apparent insistence, however, the ceremonies themselves were sharply toned down, with balloons, fireworks and celebratory music being canned, along with perhaps an hour of the show, in a decision unprecedented for the Paralympics. The organizers even took to offering refunds for ticket returns. Some late compromise seemed in the works over music of some sort being performed at the ceremony – however little time this left for the artists themselves to adjust. In getting to that point there was evidently some tension between ATHOC, trying to be faithful to a country in mourning, and the IPC, trying to wrap up their showcase event on a happy note. Notably, no top ATHOC official made any presentation or statement, as was expected, at yesterday’s conference. Craven singled out the swimming competitions as a great crowd-puller at these Games, the one sport out of the 19 which consistently sold out or nearly so. He also held that Athens offered, «without doubt, the best group of sporting venues in the world,» a sentiment based not just on bricks, mortar, and floorboards but on the people staffing them. He also saluted the spectators, whose number was put (by IPC spokesperson Miriam Wilkens) at 850,000. Just 400,000 spectators had been budgeted for, so this figure was regarded as a major success, though less than Sydney’s 1.2 million Paralympics fans. Issues to ponder These Paralympics, like the Olympics last month, were widely considered the best ever in their field. This gives the ATHOC a double success and the IOC/IPC pair much to crow about as well. Still, Craven acknowledged certain issues that will need addressing in order to keep the Games advancing and not just passably viable. One issue is the classification system for disabled athletes, which suffers from overcomplication, potential for abuse, and spectator confusion (as a world-record smasher in one category can fail to medal in a concurrent race or event). Fans, as he said, are used to watching the winners win. While asserting that the system is looked at anew after each Games, Craven promised a «major review» in this area. A second question relates to media interest, and a closely related one, money and sponsorships. It is claimed that media interest reached a new high at these Games, with accredited media numbers that Wilkens put at 3,200, higher even than a few days ago. However, this continued to omit the most lucrative market, the US, where the Games received no television coverage (but lots of commentary because of it). More media attention will bring higher fees and put the IPC on a stronger financial keel; sponsorships would do the same (it has just signed on its first worldwide sponsor, Visa International). The IPC says it is not out to become a high roller; still, it has to keep its head above water to stay viable. A third, more abstract concern lies in what the Paralympics aim to accomplish. At times, the IPC appears to want to compare the Games with the Olympics, drawing parallels between the world’s two biggest sporting events that now also share the same city, sports venues, Olympic Village and (now) organizing committee, and all within the space of a month. An understandable focus on the accomplishments of the athletes, some of which are truly exceptional, adds to this overlapping sentiment. Yet at other times, the social side of the Games seemed to prevail. Mr Craven insisted, for example, that the Paralympics were «not mimicking» the regular Olympics, were mainly aiming at «awareness,» and are far more complicated in their setup. In the one, we are to marvel at athletes’ achievements despite their disabilities, in the other, because of them. You can’t blame the IPC for trying to have it both ways, yet you can sense an inherent dilemma. Much of this is encapsulated in the problematic category of «intellectually disabled,» which created a huge controversy at Sydney when it emerged that the wheelchair basketball winners from Spain had effectively cheated to get into the category. A repetition of that fiasco, Craven indicated, could have imperiled the whole Games of Athens – an admission that speaks volumes for the Paralympics’ still tentative footing at the end of the 12th installment that ended last evening. Yet anybody who watched even a bit of them will know it’s an eminently worthy cause. A little rock climb «Because it’s there» has been an age-old rationale for climbing Everest, or any other high place for those with less lofty goals. For an athlete in a wheelchair, the Athens Acropolis presents an irresistibly symbolic as well as practical barrier to tackle; and yesterday morning Canada’s Jeff Adams set out to conquer the ancient hill. In a public climb expected to take up to an hour, he barely broke a sweat despite the muggy conditions in making his way up through the Propylaea to the Parthenon in little more than 15 minutes – going backwards, no less – and in doing so, struck another blow for all people facing physical obstacles. Adams, a wheelchair racer competing at his fifth Paralympics and with some 13 Paralympic medals coming into Athens, is no stranger to public events like this. A motivational speaker, actor and broadcaster (and proprietor of a website called «adamsmania»), he is used to life in the open, serving as a roving ambassador and irrepressible spokesman for the disabled community. Two years ago almost to the day, he climbed up Toronto’s CN Tower, one of the world’s tallest buildings, step by each of its 1,776 steps, in a wheelchair. Unlike the Acropolis in most spots, that structure had hand railings. This time around he was testing a diminutive new version of a wheelchair, barely a third of a meter across, with tiny wheels that only rolled backward; he pushed himself and the chair up with crutches that had non-slip pads. Before setting off he admitted to being «a little apprehensive,» mainly because of the slippery marble; such a climb in the rain would have become interesting. As it happened, dodging all the tourists and supporters cheering him on was about his most pressing obstacle. Adams said his main goal in this little trek was «to draw attention to an issue in a positive way,» namely the Paralympics and problems facing the disabled, and to «demonstrate ability» in overcoming them – approaching the issue from both ends. In further remarks atop the famous landmark, he made a strong plea for a level playing field, not just in sports but in society. He saluted the new wheelchair lift up the Acropolis’s north wall, even while eschewing its useful if slightly ungainly services. Sticking to the high road, he also commended the new Athens mass-transit facilities, notably the metro, which is fully wheelchair-accessible, while saying nothing about works not yet done. But mainly, his was a call for equal opportunities and open doors, because as «everyone of us faces barriers every day,» we need the «courage to confront every single one» via a «level playing field.» Canada’s Senator Joyce Fairbairn, a big supporter, gave a rousing speech (as did Canadian Ambassador Philip Somerville), saying, «Nothing can stop the quest for excellence of those who aim high and dream big.» A Greek wheelchair marathoner who accompanied him, Vassilis Constantinopoulos, added that his mantra would be: «We can, we can, we can.» There was certainly no brooking any defeatism in those quarters.