The Paralympics began last week with an Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium featuring world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking and highlighting scientific advances including Newton’s discovery of the theory of relativity and the Higg’s Boson.
The games have not been without controversy and drama. A sell-out audience of 80,000 was silent in shock on Sunday after South African Oscar Pistorius suffered his first-ever defeat in the 200m, losing by 0.13 seconds to Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira of Brazil. Pistorius claimed that the winner’s prosthetic blades were too long.
One of the games’ major sponsors, information technology company Atos, has been engulfed in a controversy about disability tests that, many charge, have wrongly led to people with disabilities in the UK being deprived of benefits. Under Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity reforms, disability benefits totaling in the billions of pounds could be cut. Disability advocates have noted that, outside of high-profile events like the Paralympics, individuals with disabilities are too often invisible and an afterthought.
Amid all this are the games themselves and, most of all, the athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities who are competing. Here are some of their stories.
(Athletes in the Paralympics are given a classification based on the extent to which an impairment gives them a competitive disadvantage; the Guardian has a complete guide to the classifications as well as some explanatory graphics.)
1. 20-year-old Hannah “Hurricane” Cockroft of Great Britain was told that she “would never be able to do anything [her] whole life and wouldn’t live past [her] teenage years.” She experienced two cardiac arrests during her birth, leaving her with brain damage and deformed legs and feet. Cockroft won the gold in the T34 100 meters before a sell-out crowd.
2. Another British athlete, 15-year-old Jessica Jane Applegate, has Asperger’s Syndrome and just had an operation on her left foot last month. The swimmer won the gold in the S14 200 meters on Sunday.
3. 32-year-old Derek Derenalagi lost both legs below the knees serving in the British army in Afghanistan and was declared dead until doctors detected a faint pulse. He did not make the finals in the F57/58 discus but still received a “hero’s welcome” from 80,000 fans.
4. 18-year-old Darragh McDonald of Ireland won a gold medal in the S6 400m freestyle. Born missing part of his right arm below the elbow and both legs below the knee, his father Derek McDonald told the Irish Times that “I never thought we’d be here [in the Paralympic final] when we started out 18 years ago.”
5. 6. British brothers Sam and Oliver Hynd — both have neuromuscular myopathy, a degenerative condition that severely weakens their leg muscles — took the silver and bronze in the S8 400 meter freestyle right under the eyes of their parents. As the Telegraph observes, “brotherly love won the day here.”
7. 38-year-old Canadian Michele Stilwell, a quadriplegic, beat her own Paralympic gold medal record in the women’s T52 200 meters in wheelchair racing by two seconds on Saturday. She, her husband Mark and their 11-year-old son Kai, who is autistic, moved to Australia for three months in the winter so Stilwell could train before the Paralympics. As she says in the CBC, “It was a huge sacrifice we’ve all made to make it happen.”
8. 39-year-old Martine Wright, who lost both her legs in the July 7, 2005, bombing in the London subway, wears the no. 7 on her jersey as a member of Britain’s sitting volleyball team. She’s now a mother and has also learned to ski and fly; among her teammates is a British soldier who lost both legs fighting in Iraq. As Wright says of the loss of her legs, “It’s such a negative thing that happened in my life. But I’ve gained something so positive. It’s a miracle in itself.”
9. 31-year-old Nyree Kindred, who has cerebral palsy, won a silver medal in the S6 100 meters backstroke. It was the tenth medal the British swimmer has won at the Paralympics and especially meaningful as her daughter Ella, who was born a year ago, was watching.
10. Or rather, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 as sitting volleyball teams are made up of six athletes. Rwanda sent the first team ever from sub-Saharan Africa; the team was created by two athletes who had “lost limbs fighting on the opposite sides of their country’s bloody genocide,” says the Guardian. The team lost 25-13 to Brazil. As one of its founders, Dominique Bizimana, an ethnic Tutsi, said: “I’m the happiest man in my country because in the beginning when we started nobody was listening. Now every attention is on the Paralympics.”
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