Spotlight on the neglected

Greece was delighted, the world was surprised, but it’s hard to find anyone happier with the success of the Athens Olympics than Thanassis Koltsidas. «I watched everything on television. It was fantastic,» the 45-year-old shot putter said yesterday, smiling in his wheelchair. «I couldn’t go to the stadiums because I was too busy training.» Koltsidas, 44, joined other enthusiastic athletes in wheelchairs, on crutches and led by guides in a hotel ballroom for the announcement of Greece’s 135-member team – a record number – for the September 17-28 Paralympics. It was a rare treat in a country which has long neglected the disabled. Koltsidas hopes all the new stadiums, transport systems, hastily built ramps and the lingering limelight on Athens might make a difference. «I hope our Games will be just as good,» said Koltsidas, who has cerebral palsy. «I think something will change… it has been a bit delayed.» About 4,000 athletes from 143 countries will compete in 19 sports, including four unique to disabled athletes: wheelchair rugby, powerlifting, goalball, and boccia. Most of Athens’s new stadium complexes will be used for the Paralympics while security will remain on alert. Organizers plan to pay about 107 million euros for the Games. An 11th hour program to improve accessibility in congested Athens included installing an elevator at the ancient Acropolis. «This is really a special moment for us,» said Spyros Stavrianopoulos, head of the Greek Paralympic Committee. «We’re hoping these Games will change the – why should we hide it? – negative attitude toward people with disabilities… our country must make a great leap in its attitude… The level of performance is so high, almost hard to believe. High jumpers with one leg can clear 1.98 meters, sprinters with one leg can run a 100 meters in 12.62 seconds.» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Monday urged sports fans to come to stadiums, where tickets will be available for as little as 10 euros. «After the message of peace sent by the Olympics, we must now send a message of humanity,» he said. Blind marathon runner Costas Stavridis, 54, hopes it’s true. «When the stadium lights are switched off, usually the people the crowd have been clapping for are forgotten,» he said. «But we’ll keep trying to show people we are here and we are competing like the able-bodied athletes. It’s time that we who remain invisible in people’s daily lives be given a better role in our society.»

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