By GREG ANSLEY
SYDNEY - If Eric the Eel was the expression of the Olympic ideal, East Timor's Alcino Pereira was its Paralympic fulfilment.
Eric Moussambani was the last-minute entry from Equatorial Guinea who became an instant star by swimming the slowest-ever Olympic 100m.
On Friday, Pereira, his Paralympic counterpart, brought the Olympic Stadium crowd roaring to its feet as he plodded through his 5000m race, smiling and moving aside to let his rivals pass as they lapped him, and lapped him again - and again.
Even as the track cleared of runners, the intellectually disabled Pereira struggled on to cheers that turned to boos and chants of "Let him run, let him run," when an official tried to guide him away.
The stands thundered as a volunteer ran out with a bouquet of the Australian native flowers given to medal-winners, and Pereira jogged past and out. For the crowd, Pereira was a winner.
He had come from shattered East Timor as an independent Paralympic athlete - his United Nations-administered homeland is not yet a nation - and pushed against both disability and severe disadvantage.
No one could ask for more.
But the Paralympics were more than a statement of courage and goodwill.
In Sydney, the Games came out of the shadows and took a new life of their own as record crowds again strained the city's transport system to cram the venues of Olympic Park, and 2800 media personnel sent daily coverage around the world.
For the people who came to watch the events it mattered little what able-bodied athletes may have been able to do over the same distance, or with the same weights - the intensity of the competition, the adrenalin of nationalism and the recognition of excellence in pushing physical extremes were sufficient.
The enthusiasm for contests such as wheelchair racing, rugby and basketball made no concessions to disability.
And the gap between disability and able-bodied competition began to blur - American amputee sprinter Marlon Ray Shirley's speed on racing prosthetics is such that Olympian superstar Marion Jones trains with him.
For the first time, disability athletes have become household names in Australia.
These include Louise Sauvage, who for eight years has been unchallenged in wheelchair racing and was among Australia's most successful athletes, and 17-year-old intellectually disabled swimmer Siobhan Paton, who won five golds and captured the nation's heart.
So startling were the leaps in performance since the Atlanta Games that convergence - a buzzword for blending able-bodied and disability athletes - became a controversial undertone and, in the case of New Zealand Sports Foundation chief executive Chris Ineson, a matter for serious thought.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard saw the competition, and the crowds, and announced that his nation's Paralympians would be treated the same as Olympians, and would receive more money and resources after these Games.
The opening concert was sold out to a capacity crowd of 87,000. So was last night's closing ceremony, another spectacular that raged with stars such as rock icon Jimmy Barnes, and ended with 1960s star Judith Durham's The Carnival is Over.
Demand was so great that state-owned ABC - which snapped up the rights when Olympic broadcaster Channel Seven dropped its option - had to extend its television cover. Its national radio stations launched block two-hour daily programmes and newspapers produced special Paralympic sections.
Crowds kept building day by day, so much so that the special $A15 ($19.50) day-passes rapidly failed to guarantee seats at the prime events with tens of thousands of children bused in from schools across New South Wales.
By close of sales on Saturday night, more than 1.1 million tickets had been sold, far exceeding Atlanta's previous record and surprising even the most optimistic Paralympic officials.
Long queues snaked across Olympic Park, festooned in flags of many nations, faces painted in the Australian yellow and gold, Canadian maple leaves or Kiwi black and white.
International broadcasters booked all satellite links - grabbing prime-time audiences, especially in North America and Europe.
WeMedia, a New York webcaster, provided live coverage over the internet for the first time and, in a deal announced on Saturday, paid a reported $US70 million ($174.6 million) for the worldwide television broadcasts and internet rights for the next six years, underwriting the Games' immediate future.
The Games were not without shadows. Nine powerlifters were expelled after testing positive to drugs, mostly steroids, alarming officials who until Sydney had run an almost drug-free event.
There were concerns that more money, and greater professionalism, could change the nature and spirit of the Games, particularly if the performances and technology of the less-disabled athletes opened divisions between the more severely disabled and the poor nations unable to divert money to Paralympic programmes.
And there were similar concerns that convergence of disability and able-bodied athletes could undermine the Games that have as much to do with hope and aspiration as with excellence.
But in Sydney the Paralympics came of age.