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Sports

German Paralympics Athlete Fights to Win Acceptance

As 4,000 disabled athletes gather for the Paralympics on Saturday, Sept. 6, German table tennis champ Rainer Schmidt hopes the Games will help change China's perception of disabled people.

Table tennis champ Rainer Schmidt

Schmidt hopes to change China's perception of disabled people at his last Paralympics

German table tennis champ Rainer Schmidt, who uses a Bonn school's gymnasium to train, has competed in the Paralympics ever since they were launched in 1988 in Seoul.

He has racked up four gold medals and three silvers and Beijing will be his sixth games. So has his competitive thirst been quenched? And is he tired yet?

"Sure, I am now," he said. "These will definitely be my last Paralympics. I've played enough table tennis. Now it's time for other things in life."

A seasoned amateur

In comparison to many other Olympic athletes, at 43, Schmidt is actually an amateur. A former theology student, he earns a living as a speaker at an institute for the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland. His career makes it hard for him to find time to train.

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder embraces gold medal winner Wojtek Czyz of Germany at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games

The Paralympic Games promote awareness of disabled people and their needs

"I can't compare it to Timo Boll, who is a complete professional and trains at least twice a day," he said, referring to Germany's table tennis icon who won gold at the Beijing Olympics.

"I have another career. I take table tennis very seriously and am now training very often in preparation for the Paralympics, but in the years in between I've cut back significantly because I have other things to do," he said.

Schmidt was born without forearms and with a shortened femoral. He holds his table tennis paddle with a metal bar that is attached to his upper arm with hook fastenings. He has a prosthetic attached to his right leg.

Schmidt is currently the world number five in his discipline and his goal is to reach the semi-finals at the Paralympics. He admitted he was a bit apprehensive of what to expect at the Games in Beijing.

"Now I have some mixed feeling because of course I've also heard from Olympians that we can't update our own Internet pages. And I always ask myself: How big is the government control? What can I say here that will suddenly be known in China. It's definitely a strange feeling," he said.

Changing attitudes

The same applies for the Paralympics athletes as did for the Olympic Games last month: No political statements within the competition zones. As an athlete, Schmidt says he needs to block these things out.

"I always joke that when I'm competing, I forget my own name and only think about table tennis," he said. "And that is the remarkable thing about sports. But when the competition is over, I've decided that I'll approach a few volunteers about what life in China is like, and what they think of the political atmosphere. I'd like to make a few contacts."

Fireworks are set off over the National Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games

The Paralympics are hosted by the same country as the Olympics

Schmidt has also learned first-hand that disabled people are perceived quite differently in China than they are in Germany.

"Last year I was in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Never in my life have I been stared at by people like that," Schmidt said. "They came up to me and touched me like I was an alien from another planet," he said.

People with disabilities don't appear in public life (in China), he said, adding the country had a a lot of catching up to do.

Schmidt is optimistic the athletes' achievements at the Paralympics can change the general Chinese attitude towards people with disabilities.

"They will appear in public and have the spotlight of the media on them,” he says. "They won't be viewed as disabled people, but rather as athletes. So I believe that the people's perception of disabled people will change."

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