‘Tremendous progress’ in Paralympic preparations and the arrangements for athletes with disabilties

The Athens 2004 Organizing Committee (ATHOC) has achieved enormous progress in meeting deadlines and timetables of Olympic sporting venues, and security will be the appropriate one to guarantee a safe Games, a British Paralympic official said this week. Philip Lane, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, who was in Athens this week for a series of meeting with ATHOC officials, said in an interview with Kathimerini’s English Edition yesterday that he is «delighted with progress that ATHOC has made» since his last visit to the Greek capital nine months ago. The British Paralympic official underlined that progress achieved in the venues has brushed aside any previous concerns held by any foreign Paralympic team, but he was quick to stress that transportation – namely between the Paralympic Village and the sporting venues – remains a key question that needs to be addressed. Great Britain is expected to bring some 200 Paralympic athletes for the 2004 Games, escorted by another 150 technical and support staff. Lane acknowledged that although the venues will be ready on time for the Games, the city will not. But he declared that the athletes «will accept that a city like Athens, with its tremendous history, is not going to be instantly accessible.» He noted that it is how the people of Greece will receive these athletes that will make the difference, and not so much the otherwise much-needed infrastructure. Finally, he appears confident that Greece will be hosting a safe Games, stressing that all appropriate measures will be taken by the organizers in order to ensure their safety. Are you pleased with the progress achieved so far by ATHOC? You can say that they have made some considerable progress. I was here in December last year for the International Paralympic Committee General Assembly and at that time there were quite a lot of concerns on that progress. So I was pleased to come back now, some nine months later, and tour the venues yesterday (Thursday), and to see an enormous amount of progress taking place, particularly in the new buildings. There are still some areas which will need some refurbishment, but ATHOC reassured us that things are on schedule and that they will be ready on time for the Games. What concerns do you have about them meeting the deadlines? I think we are delighted with the progress that ATHOC has made in terms of the sporting venues for athletes with disability, and I am absolutely certain that during the Games there will be no problem at all with athletes being able to take advantage of all those venue areas. I think there is one question for us all to resolve still, [which] is movement from different venues and the Paralympic Village, in terms of transportation and timelines. How concerned are you about having the Paralympics held after the Olympic Games, in terms of attendance? I don’t think it’s a problem, and I think Sydney demonstrated what is achievable, and certainly with the right level of promotion and marketing. Australia was able to get venues in Sydney at near capacity; also the opening and closing ceremonies were at maximum capacity. So I think it is a question of demonstrating to people that this is an elite sporting event which has a uniqueness in its character, and I hope that we will be able to ensure that ATHOC is able to spread that message. We will certainly work very hard within our own country to spread that message of what is a European Games, and so accessible too. So, it is very, very important to us that we are able to develop that, and I get the feeling that the fact we are here in Athens is going to be a big moment for the Paralympics movement. I don’t know if you know anything about the origins of the Paralympic sports, but as Greece is the home of the Olympics sports, Great Britain is where the Paralympic sports began. So, for us there is a sense of coming home, if you like coming full circle, in that we are bringing our athletes to the home of the Olympic sports and in saying that you now are recognized as the elite athletes that we believe you are in the home of the Olympics. Is the city of Athens ready for the Paralympic teams? The message that I gave to the school (St Catharine’s School of the British Embassy) this morning is that Paralympic athletes and disabled people are very conscious that barriers and restrictions don’t inhibit what they achieve, and I think they will accept that a city like Athens with its tremendous history is not going to be instantly accessible. This is clear: I mean we wouldn’t expect you to build a ramp up to the Acropolis. I think we will respect the history of a venue in that sense, and provided that the people themselves are welcomed and they feel supported and recognized for their achievements. The physical barriers can be overcome and I believe that it is quite possible for Athens to demonstrate that it is a city friendly to the people with disability in that way. And it isn’t necessarily just about the physical structures, the buildings, the doorways – which are important, don’t get me wrong, they need to be there because people have to live – but in a sense that the most important thing will be how the people of Athens take to the athletes. How involved and how serious is ATHOC about the Paralympics? I think there is a very strong sense of importance for the Paralympic Games on the committee, certainly whether you have the drive of (ATHOC Managing Director Ioannis) Spanoudakis, and we are absolutely delighted that Gianna Kariofili is involved, with her long association with the Paralympic Movement. I think people like that will not allow the Paralympic idea to take the back seat. So, there is a sense of importance being generated. What is the message that you are getting from the British business community in terms of supporting the Paralympics? We hope it will be great. It is an area that I was discussing this morning with (First Secretary of the British Embassy’s commercial section Frank) Jones and that we think there are some tremendous opportunities for companies to come and be involved in the Paralympic Games. One of the great things about the Paralympics is that it is still very accessible to people, whereas much of the Olympic Games, as you know, is much tied up with big sponsors. The opportunity for the Paralympic Games is still there and we have athletes who are very accessible to people. We have tremendous achievements to be associated with, which from a business point of view will open tremendous opportunities, and in terms of infrastructure and general commercial growth the very things that we have been talking about, such as accessibility and change in the environment, are clearly areas where companies are going to say, «This is an opportunity for us, but also for them to demonstrate their own credentials.» Security at Athens 2004 Games What is your sense right now since your last visit here nine months ago in terms of security? A lot has changed since then. What is the message that you get from ATHOC? Security is always an issue within a large games scenario when so many countries are represented. I think that like any country putting on such sort of event, Greece has taken the matter pretty seriously. And I am absolutely certain that the measures that are currently being explored will represent the appropriate security for all the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

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