Being here is what it’s all about…

The Paralympic Games is also about transforming our perception of the world. We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being, but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics. However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do, and succeed at.

Stephen Hawking, Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games

Just a few hours from now, the flame will burn again in Rio de Janeiro, as the Paralympic athletes take over. While we can expect outstanding competitions and excellent performances again, these Games are also, as the Olympics had been, marred by controversy, Doping and other scandals, organisational difficulties, fears concerning the attendance figures… Until recently even the funding of travel costs for up to ten national teams was not secured. And on top of it all came the Russian affair, with the IPC taking a much stronger position than the IOC and suspending Russian membership rights in the Committee entirely, thereby excluding all athletes from Russia from the Games. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Swiss Federal Court and the District Court of Bonn, Germany, all ruled in favour of the IPCs decision, denying both the Russian Paralympic Committee and individual athletes any sort of reinstatement.

To me personally, the prelude to these Games also brings back wonderful memories of one remarkable day, an Olympiad ago…

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Four years ago I made a rather spontaneous decision. To return to London, a month after my last visit at the 2012 Olympics, and visit the Paralympic Games. And of course, it was the Olympic summer that somehow convinced me to make my personal dreams of London 2012 last a little longer. As it turned out, I was not alone with that idea. Especially many Londoners had enjoyed the Olympics so much, and in many cases quite unexpectedly, that they wanted to use this opportunity to celebrate, to dream, to enjoy the atmosphere of London 2012 for a few more days. My travel budget was a bit limited by then, owing in no small part to the priceless but expensive Olympic experience, but two factors came to my aid: 1. Paralympic tickets tend to be much more affordable than Olympic ones, and 2. I chose rather, well, low budget-accomodation…

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My bed is the one on the bottom, left side…

 

As my intention was neither to see a specific event nor necessarily a German gold medal chance, and since I had only one day, I decided for a GBP 10,- day-ticket. It came with unlimited access to all competitions inside the ExCeL arena. Sitting Volleyball, Boccia, Wheelchair Fencing, Powerlifting. None of these I had ever watched before. OK, on TV, yes, but not live, inside an arena.

After passing the security checks much quicker than a few weeks before, the day began with Sitting Volleyball. The name is, as with other paralympic sports like Wheelchair Basketball, Wheelchair Tennis or 7-a-side Football, already a quite adequate description of the sport. All players are sitting on the court, which is of course smaller than a regular Volleyball court. The net has been lowered as well. Other than that the rules are quite the same. Players have a varying degree of physical impairments, and in fact all of them, at least in the first match I saw, were able to walk into the arena. Out of coincidence, the first match was between the German team and Egypt, with the Germans winning by 3-1 sets. They would later proceed to win the bronze medal.

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Boccia is of course a well-known game, similar to Pétanque or Lawn Bowls. Similarities are also quite evident to Curling, and some might think it’s a rather dull affair. Admittedly, both are rather patient and usually quiet sports. But they can be really fascinating, exciting, nerve-wracking. And players in London showed an immense amount of skill and precision, including, to the delight of the crowd, the British team in the BC1-2 class…

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The next hall hosted the Powerlifting competitions, the Paralympic variant of Weightlifting. It’s basically the bench press, which you might know from your local gym, as athletes are lying down on a bench and lift the weight upwards. In the highest weight category, athletes manage to lift close to 300kg. The hall was packed with an enthusiastic but in no way biased crowd, as it had been during the Olympic weightlifting events.

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Finally, I went to the Fencing hall. Wheelchair fencing also has more or less the same rules as regular fencing, including the three different weapons foil, epée and sabre. Fencers are sitting in wheelchairs which are fixed to the floor. While some athletes might be able to sit up from their position, they are not allowed to do so without facing a penalty point. Again the audience was quite significant in numbers and the sport itself proved to be as exciting as Olympic fencing, just a bit shorter than that one night, a few weeks before, at the women’s epée semifinals (Heidemann v. Shin)…

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One of the many beautiful ideas, the organizers had in London: ever tried wheelchair fencing before…?

Visiting the Paralympics has been an unforgettable experience, even though I spent such limited time there. Of course, I knew about the Games and their outstanding performers before. I watched quite a lot of the Paralympics on TV, at least since Sydney 2000 when  German broadcasters extended their coverage significantly. And I worked as a paramedic during the German National Championship in Para-Athletics a couple of years ago. But to see it first-hand, to witness what has grown from rehabilitation exercises at a local hospital to the world’s third largest sports event, was extraordinary.

So, here we are! The XV Paralympic Games are about to begin. And the very latest news I’m reading from Rio are indeed encouraging: the financing issues for the ten affected NPCs have been resolved, with the IPC and several national governments agreeing to bear the costs, ticket sales have risen significantly, now passing the mark of 1.5 million, and together with the brilliant #FillTheSeats campaign, aimed at providing Brazilian children with free access to venues, they are now talking about sold out venues. Oh, and by the way, no reports of any competition pool turning green as of now…

There are many reasons to be excited for the 2016 Paralympics. Those of you who have watched the 2012 Paralympics will agree with me for sure. And if you have never watched Paralympic sport before, you should try it this time. It is something that will last with you for a long time, that could broaden your horizon, alter your perceptions, inspire you and let you witness what the human spirit is capable of. The Paralympics are not about disability, but ability. As Sebastian Coe said during the Closing Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics:

We will never think of sport the same way and we will never think of disability the same way.

The Games will be broadcast in more countries than ever before (For all those in Germany via ARD/ZDF). And there will be extensive coverage with up to 72 hours of livestreams per day(!), incl. English commentary, available on the IPCs homepage (International Paralympic Committee).

 

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Public Viewing in Trafalgar Square

 

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Low attendance figures weren’t really an issue at the Powerlifting arena…

 

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The perfect end to a marvelous Olympic/Paralympic summer of 2012…

 

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