The 12th Paralympics begins on Friday in Athens, barely a month since the able-bodied Olympics ended. It promises to be equally spectacular, boasting the largest gathering of disabled elite athletes in history.
Paralympians are flocking to ancient Athens for the 2004 Games
With barely enough time to catch its breath after the summer Olympics, Athens is gearing up this week to host yet another mega sporting event. The 12th Paralympics, the largest gathering of disabled elite athletes in history, starts on Friday.
More than 4,000 athletes from 142 nations have assembled in Athens to compete -- against each other, to be sure, but also against the arbitrary limits imposed by illness or accident, and against the lingering prejudices of a world in which the disabled have only recently begun to find their rightful place.
The first Paralympics by that name took place in Rome in 1960, alongside the summer Games that year, bringing together less than 400 athletes from 23 countries. They were once again held in tandem with the summer Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, but then split off into an entirely separate event held in a different city than the summer Games until 1988. Since then, they have always followed the able-bodied Olympics.
The ancient Parthenon.
By any measure, the Athens Paralympics will be a record-setting event. In absolute terms, it is the second-biggest international sports competition after the summer Games, covering 19 disciplines, including athletics and swimming, and running over 12 days. And compared to previous Paralympics, it has attracted more athletes from more countries -- as well as more corporate sponsorship and media -- than ever before.
The quest for gold
But the real measure of the Paralympics, like any major sports event, are the individual elite athletes striving for gold. It could be French swimming sensation Beatrice Hess who, at 42, will attempt to add to the 13 gold medals she collected in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. Or 25-year-old sprinter Marlon Shirley from the US, the first amputee to ever run the 100 meters sprint in under 11 seconds.
Or it could be Afghanistan's sole representative and flag-bearer in these Games, sprinter Marina Karim, for whom simply getting to Athens from her war-torn homeland was a victory of sorts.
As organizers and athletes make clear, the Paralympics is not a "feel-good" event or an exercise in public education. It is all about winning, and many of the athletes vying for medals here perform at levels approaching national, and even international, levels in able-bodied competition.
Shirley's 10.97 personal best, to cite one example, is just over one second beyond the current world record of 9.78 seconds in the 100 meter sprint, set by US sprinter Tim Montgomery in 2002. Nigerian sprinter Qdekundo Adesoji, competing against other virtually blind sprinters like himself 30 years ago, clocked an extraordinary 10.76 in the same event.
Amateur spirit lives on
Indeed, observers note, the Paralympics cleave to an exceptionally pure ideal of sports. While most top able-bodied athletes have turned professional, looking to sponsorships and advertising for revenue, Paralympic athletes remain closer to the amateur spirit that once animated the Olympic Games.
And even if the concept of a special Games for the disabled would have seemed strange in ancient Greece, the Paralympics more closely resemble its early precursor than the modern able-bodied Olympics in at least one respect: only events with objective measures of speed, strength and distance are included. There are no sports requiring subjective judging such as gymnastics, diving or synchronized swimming.
Less savoury habits are shared
Another less fortunate indicator of the seriousness of competition at the Paralympics, alas, is the presence of performance-enhancing drugs and cheating. Eleven athletes -- mostly weightlifters -- were disqualified from the Paralympics in 2000, more even than in the able-bodied Sydney Games that year. And the Spanish basketball team competing in the category for the intellectually disabled in Sydney was stripped of its gold medal when it was revealed that most players had faked their disabilities.
One of the consequences of that scandal was the relegation of intellectual disability -- one of six broad categories -- to exhibition status at the Athens Games, and then only for two sports: table tennis and basketball.
Proteas, the mascot of the Athens 2004 Paralympics.
The five disability groups in which medals are awarded, each of them with subdivisions based on severity, are amputees, athletes with cerebral palsy, the vision impaired, athletes with spinal injuries, and "Les Autres," a French term meaning "the others" covering persons with a range of conditions that do not fit into any other category.
These fine distinctions in disability result in a plethora of medals, more than 3,000 all told. 1,097 gold medals alone will be awarded over the 12 days of competition.
Besides athletics and swimming, the other sports at the Paralympics are archery, wheelchair basketball, cycling, equestrian, wheelchair fencing, 5-a-side and 7-a-side football, goal ball, judo, power lifting, sailing, shooting, table tennis, wheelchair tennis, volleyball, wheelchair rugby and boccia.