After Olympic 'warm-up,' Paralympics set to take stage in London

Londoners are gearing up for what should be a record-breaking Paralympic Games, with sell-out crowds and new highs in both the number of athletes and the number of countries participating.

Neil Hall/Reuters
Torch bearers carry the Paralympic flame outside Westminster Abbey in London on Wednesday.

It’s been a busy summer here in London, but the festivities aren’t over yet. Two and a half weeks after The Who closed out the Olympic Games in front of a screaming crowd of 80,000 inside the Olympic Stadium, Londoners are gearing up for the next – and last – big event in their summer lineup: the Paralympic Games, which will kick off with an opening ceremony on Wednesday night.

By many measures, this year’s edition of the Paralympics will be a record-breaking 11 days of competition. Organizers are expecting a complete sellout, which would be a first in Paralympic history. The Games will also register new highs in terms of the number of athletes participating, as well as the number of countries that those athletes represent.

“Thanks for the warm-up” has been the message on billboards lining London’s train routes in the days before the Paralympics get going. It’s an advertisement for Channel 4, the British television station that’s broadcasting the Games, but it speaks to a wider sense of anticipation among eager athletes and ticketholders here.

More than 2.5 million tickets have already been sold for this year’s Paralympics, compared with 1.8 million in Beijing and just 850,000 in Athens. Those are precisely the kind of numbers that Paralympics organizers had hoped for.

“One of the legacies we really wanted to push for was maybe being able to tilt some of those misconceptions that still exist in some quarters about disability,” Sebastian Coe, the head of the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, told reporters earlier this month. “I think when people see the Paralympic Games, they will be amazed by the quality of sport that they see.”

This year’s Games are something of a homecoming for the Paralympics, which have their roots in Britain.

In 1948, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurologist who had fled to England from Nazi Germany, organized a small sports competition for injured veterans of World War II. “The International Wheelchair Games,” as he called them, were held at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, about an hour outside of London, and Guttman timed them to coincide with the Olympics, which were hosted by the British capital that summer.

It would be more than a decade before the world would see its first official Paralympic Games, which were held in Rome in 1960. But the 1948 Wheelchair Games in Stoke Mandeville is undoubtedly where the movement got its start.

And it’s come a long way since. The Paralympics are now the world’s second-biggest multisport event, after, of course, the Olympics. This year’s Paralympics will welcome a record-breaking 4,280 athletes from 166 countries – 19 more countries than were represented in Beijing. The athletes will compete in 20 different sporting events, including powerlifting, sitting volleyball, wheelchair fencing, equestrian, and track and field.

It all gets going with Wednesday night’s Opening Ceremony, a three-hour celebration of the UK’s history of science and discovery. The show will feature Stephen Hawking – the famous, wheelchair-bound British physicist – as well as 50 deaf and disabled artists who have spent the last eight weeks learning acrobatic skills from scratch. Joint artistic directors Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings have said that the show will be “both spectacular and deeply human.”

Mary Allison Milford, a wheelchair basketball player from Birmingham, Alabama, will be among the athletes to make their way around the Olympic Stadium during the festivities on Wednesday night. She and her teammates have been enjoying the atmosphere of the Games ever since they boarded their flight from Chicago to London late last week.

“There were a lot of Londoners on our flight saying they were excited about the Paralympics and that they had already bought tickets,” Ms. Milford says. “All of our venues and all of our games are already sold out.”

“We’re incredibly excited and incredibly humbled to be able to represent our country in front of such a huge audience,” she adds. “It really makes all of those late nights in the gym pay off.”

Milford, who has used a wheelchair since she was injured in a car accident at the age of three, already has one Paralympic Games under her belt: She and her teammates won gold four years ago in Beijing. That means they have a big target on their backs this time around, but she says that they’re ready for the competition.

And for now, Milford is just enjoying her stay in the Paralympic Village, which she and her team will call home for the next 10 days. She says it’s thrilling to head to the cafeteria for a meal and suddenly find herself in a room full of elite athletes.

“These people are the best in the world at what they do,” she says. “It’s kind of mind boggling.”

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