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London's Paralympics Set To Be The Biggest Yet


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. The torch has been lit for the Paralympics, and it will travel now to the same stadium in London that was home to the Olympics for opening ceremonies tomorrow. More than 4,000 athletes, with all sorts of impairments - amputees, the blind, the intellectually impaired - will compete in events including swimming, cycling, rowing, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, to name just a few.

The Paralympics trace their origins to 1948, and a neurologist named Ludwig Gutman, who worked with disabled British soldiers at a hospital outside London in Stoke Mandeville. That's where today's torch relay began, and that's where we reached Paralympics historian, Ian Brittain. He says Dr. Gutman challenged the thinking of the time by using sports as treatment for people with spinal injuries.

IAN BRITTAIN: The medical practice, if you like, was they're not worth dealing with, we can't save them, they're going to die, just keep them as comfortable as you can until they do. And he totally went against that premise and started to introduce sport. And he started with easy things like skittles and darts, and eventually, the first major sport he introduced was archery, because, one, it was very, very good at strengthening the back muscles and giving the posture necessary for somebody who's going to be sitting in a wheelchair all day. And, secondly, it was a sport that people with disabilities could compete alongside their non-disabled counterparts.

BLOCK: And the original games in 1948 featured how many athletes, how many events?

BRITTAIN: It was only one event. It was an archery competition between eight archers from the Stoke Mandeville hospital, where the spinal injuries unit that Dr. Gutman ran was, and eight archers from the Star and Garter Home for Injured Veterans in Richmond upon Thames. It was actually held on the same day as the opening ceremony of the 14th Olympic Games in London.

BLOCK: So it became associated with that in some way.

BRITTAIN: Yes, and it is something that Gutman pushed on a regular basis. Interestingly, though, the next year there were two sports in 1949, they introduced wheelchair netball, which is now wheelchair basketball. And he had seven teams and 37 athletes there, and yet in his closing speech he actually had the temerity to say that one day he believed that these games would be the disabled equivalent of the Olympic Games, which is, you know, a quite a claim to make when you've only got 37 athletes there. But he was obviously proved right.

BLOCK: He was prescient. I mean over the years it's gone on to include obviously not just soldiers but athletes from all countries of the world, and a whole range of disabilities. Are these Paralympic Games a really visible thing in London? Do you see ads for them, billboards, are the athletes being trumpeted the way the Olympic Athletes were?

BRITTAIN: I have never seen publicity like it for a Paralympic Games. It has been totally embraced by television, the newspapers. The interest is absolutely phenomenal.

BLOCK: And they've sold I think something over 2 million tickets right now. It's huge.

BRITTAIN: Two and a half million tickets.

BLOCK: And they're competing in the same venues as the Olympic Games themselves.

BRITTAIN: Yes, yes. Same Olympic Park, same stadium.

BLOCK: Are there particular athletes that you're following or maybe one event in particular that you're really looking forward to?

BRITTAIN: Well, since the first round in Sydney 2000, I've never missed a Great Britain men's wheelchair basketball game. So I'm hoping to continue that streak in London, if you like.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Ian Brittain, author of the book "The Paralympic Games Explained." Enjoy the games. Thanks for talking to us.

BRITTAIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.