David Leggat: Paralympics testimony to those who also aspire to be the best

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Sophie Pascoe. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Sophie Pascoe. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Four years ago, I flew into Christchurch shortly after the Olympics, and Paralympics, had finished in Beijing.

Walking into the arrivals area that day, passengers were greeted by the sight of a huge crowd of people, holding aloft photos, flags, balloons and banners proclaiming "Welcome Home Sophie", and "Our Champ Sophie".

When the object of their attention emerged into the terminal, the place erupted. You could hear the cheers the length and breadth of the airport. Sophie Pascoe, Christchurch - and New Zealand - sports hero, was home, bedecked with three gold medals and one silver from the Paralympic swimming meet in Beijing.

It was a touching scene, the-then 15-year-old swamped by friends, family, school mates. She went on to be one of the Sports Woman of the Year finalists at the Halberg Awards, and repeated that 12 months later.

The question now, four years on, is whether that scene will be repeated next month, when Pascoe returns from the London Paralympics. And it's not just Pascoe.

There are 23 other New Zealanders competing at the Paralympics. You suspect all will get a rousing welcome, medals or not.

Six of New Zealand's contingent - swimmers Pascoe and Cameron Leslie, shooter Michael Johnson, and athletes Peter Martin, Tim Prendergast and Holly Robinson - are world record holders, albeit Robinson's javelin mark is a junior record.

In a sense the Paralympics can be overlooked, as the hubbub over the Olympic Games dies away.

Every four years they follow in the wake of the greatest event on the world's sporting calendar.

It shouldn't be that way, but it just is. Which is not to deny in any way the lustre of the event.

Should it switch to be staged, for example, every alternate two years instead of following on the coat tails of the able-bodied Games, to stand alone?

On balance, no.

The venues are ready, the volunteers are in place and it should be part of Olympic year.

Since 1988, they have been held in the Olympic Games city of that year.

They began in 1960, but New Zealand didn't attend the first two editions, in Rome and Tokyo.

Medals have been won by New Zealand athletes every year since.

In 1984, there were two Paralympics, in New York and Stoke Mandeville in England. New Zealand grabbed 24 medals altogether that year; their record for a single-city Games was 19 in Atlanta in 1996.

The Games are open to athletes within six disability groups: amputees - of which Pascoe is a below-the-knee competitor - cerebral palsy, spinal chord injuries, vision and intellectual impairments, and a category called Les Autres, for athletes who don't fit any of the other classifications.

When the Games open next Thursday morning (NZ time), they'll be, at 4200 athletes from 160 countries, the biggest staged.

When tickets went on sale two years ago, more than one million were sold inside three weeks.

They are using Olympic Games venues, such as Eton Dorney for the rowing, Greenwich Park for the equestrian, Weymouth for the sailing and the velodrome, aquatic centre and athletics stadium at the Olympic Park complex.

But that does not mean they should be treated as an adjunct to the Olympics; instead they stand in their own right as testimony to the spirit of those who refuse to let disability get in the way of fulfilling their sporting ambitions.

- NZ Herald

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