29 July 2008

Celebrating 60 years of Paralympic sport

By Tony Garrett

The Paralympic movement has come a long way between the first International Games at Stoke Mandeville, which began 60 years ago today, and the Paralympic Games, which start in Beijing on 6 September.

Developments are constantly being made on and off the playing fields and in the way the events are covered by the media.

Back in 1948, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist who was working with World War II veterans with spinal injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, began using sport as a vital part of the rehabilitation programmes of his patients. These became known as the Stoke Mandeville Games.

A milestone event took place in July 1948, when Guttmann established a competition for patients with spinal injuries to coincide with the London Olympic Games. Sixteen paralysed British ex-servicemen and women took part in an archery competition.

Since then the "Parallel Olympics" have become the pinnacle of international competition for disabled athletes. The name derives from the Greek "para" ("beside" or "alongside") and refers to a competition held in parallel with the Olympic Games - no relation with paralysis or paraplegia was intended.

The first official Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960 and it has grown in strength since then.

At the end of August, the "Test Event" (as the Olympics are known in Paralympic circles) finishes and we can look ahead to the 13th Paralympics.

People often ask why the Paralympics are not scheduled before the Olympics.

In Athens four years ago and now in Beijing we have seen the answer - the host organisers clearly would have struggled for different reasons to ensure that the Paralympics would be ready in time.

I have been involved with disability sport and the Paralympic movement for many years and each Games creates a tremendous buzz and excitement in the build-up.

My first involvement came many years ago as an international wheelchair table tennis player.

Although ranked in the top three in the country for quite a few years and being able to compete at World and European Championships, selection for GB to participate in the Paralympics just eluded me.

The first time BBC Sport covered the Paralympics in depth was in 1980 when, along with producer Jeff Goddard and the legendary Welsh rugby player and broadcaster Cliff Morgan, I covered the Games in Arnhem.

After that it was time to concentrate on my business career within the BBC working across Drama, Sport, Finance HQ, Documentaries and back to Sport and it was not until Sydney in 2000 when I resumed Paralympic duties.

Although I was not in Sydney, with the time difference, there was a critical role to play in London to ensure that across radio and online our listeners were kept in touch with all the news and action from a tremendous Games for Team GB.

Athens proved to be a successful Paralympics, both in terms of GB medals and the BBC coverage. BBC Sport was later recognised with an award from the International Paralympic Committee as the best international broadcaster from the Games.

That led to me going out to China on behalf of the department to receive the award and experiencing for the first time the culture of China.

British Paralympic legend Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and I spent some time wheeling around the streets of Beijing, and then there weren't many disabled people visible.

It will be interesting to see whether the attitudes of the Chinese people have changed in the past few years and I honestly hope that the real legacy of the Paralympics will see much better access and acceptance of disabled people throughout China.

One of the first benefits of the Games coming to China is improved access to two of the best known historic monuments.

Tourists with a disability from all over the world will now have much better access to Beijing's most famous Forbidden City and parts of the Great Wall following extensive renovations.

As we get nearer to the Games media interest has heightened and a real multimedia approach is driving us forward.

The catalyst this year was back in May with the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, of which BBC Sport transmitted two hours of live coverage.

There has been real interest across all outlets with international stories surrounding South Africans Oscar Pistorius and Natalie Du Toit bringing Paralympic sport to the forefront of the sporting news.

With some prompting, programmes across the BBC are ensuring that they are covering both Olympic and Paralympic stories in unison.

I am sure the Beijing Paralympics will be a successful but very challenging Games for broadcasters, but it is one that we are looking forward to.

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