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No Handicap for Passion

The Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City may be over. But the Paralympics have just begun.

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Lighting the 2002 Paralympic torch

It was the sort of ice hockey upset that would bring most teams to their feet.

But when the national team from tiny Estonia managed to tie the world champion Canadian squad in Salt Lake City, they did it sitting down.

The colossal upset went mostly unreported by world media, though just weeks ago television channels and Internet sites were fixated on winter sport.

Why? This is not ordinary ice hockey, but extraordinary ice hockey for physically disabled athletes, many of whom cannot stand and who skate not upright but sitting in sledges.

This is not the media circus of the Olympic Games, but an altogether different, somehow more exceptional athletic competition – the Paralympic Games.

A dream realized

Held every two years, the Paralympics are an event for elite athletes with disabilities. They follow both the Olympic Summer and Winter Games.

Not to be confused with the Special Olympics for athletes with mental disabilities, the Paralympic movement started with the dream of English neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttman. After World War II, he arranged a competition for paralyzed members of the British armed services.

But it took decades until Sweden hosted the first official Paralympic Games in 1976.

A storied history

Paralympics in Salt Lake City

Paralympian athletes train at the Soldier Hollow, Utah, venue.

They have been held every Olympic year since then, usually in the city or country that hosted the Olympic Games. These Olympic Games with a difference are open to all athletes from around the world who qualify.

Competing and winning are just as important to the athletes taking part in the Paralympics as to those in the Olympic Games. The media glory is not there, but the personal achievement certainly is, in portions and ways unknown to Olympic medal-winners.

The athletes represent four primary disability groups: visually impaired, wheelchair users, people with cerebral palsy and amputees. They are competing in four sports; sledge hockey, biathlon, cross-country skiing and alpine skiing.

Spectacular opening ceremony

This years’ Winter Paralympic Games are the first in North America, and 500 athletes representing 36 countries are competing in 100 medal events.

U.S. President George W. Bush officially opened the 8th Winter Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City on March 7, 2002. While he was present at last month’s Olympic Games, he only sent a video message to the Paralympics.

Paralympics in Salt Lake City eröffnet

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Paralympics

The spectacular opening ceremony included figure skaters dressed in imaginative costumes performing a breathtaking choreography on ice.

As the athletes of the different nations entered the Rice-Eccles-Stadium, the German team was led by Frank Höfle, a 34-year old Nordic skier who is visually handicapped. A superstar in his own right, Höfle has won 15 medals at past Paralympic Games. This made him the most successful athlete ever at the Paralympics.

The Paralympics will continue through March 16 in Salt Lake City and surrounding venues.

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