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Don?t tune out just yet

by admin March 9, 2010

Now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished, the events completed and the medals awarded, most of the thousands of journalists and revellers who descended upon Vancouver have gone back to wherever they came from. Those who stick around for another two weeks, however, will witness something special.
They will watch athletes like Lauren Woolstencroft, Brian McKeever and Jean Labonté as they try to realize their Olympic dreams. McKeever, who is visually impaired, was set to become the first athlete to ever compete in both the Winter Olympics and Paralympic games until his Olympic spot was given to someone else. There are about 55 athletes expected to represent Canada at the 10th Winter Paralympic Games.

Not to be confused with the Special Olympics, which are for athletes with intellectual disabilities, the Paralympics are for high-performing athletes with physical disabilities. In 1948 Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, a German neurologist, organized a sports competition for British Second World War veterans with spinal cord injuries and made it coincide with the Olympics. The first official Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960 and in 1988 in Seoul, the Paralympics began to be held in the same city as the Olympics.
According to the International Paralympic Committee, the popularity of the Paralympic movement has been steadily growing. On their website, they point out that the number of participating athletes in Summer Paralympic Games “has increased from 400 athletes from 23 countries in Rome in 1960 to 3,951 athletes from 146 countries in Beijing in 2008.”

The Winter Paralympics are composed of five sports; alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling. Skiing events, including the biathlon, are divided into three categories; standing, sitting and visually impaired. Visually impaired cross-country skiers, such as McKeever, have guides who ski alongside or behind them, and the alpine skiers have guides ski in front of them.
Visually impaired biathletes use an electronic sound system that signals when their rifle is aimed at the target. Sledge hockey players use special sleds and two shortened hockey sticks to get around on the ice and wheelchair curlers compete on teams composed of both men and women.
Vancouver 2010 will be the first Winter Paralympics ever held in Canada. In previous years, television coverage consisted solely of a highlight show that aired after the Games were over, though coverage eventually evolved to about five weekly hours.
Anna Parisi, head of communications for Canada’s Paralympic Committee, says the coverage of the Paralympics in Canada this year will be unprecedented. There will be 50 hours of coverage in both French and English on networks such as CTV, TSN and RDS, including a live broadcast of every Team Canada sledge hockey game.
Parisi says it makes sense that Paralympic coverage isn’t yet on par with the Olympics. “We’re a smaller and younger movement than the Olympics. It takes time to create the awareness and the popularity that drives media interest.”
Canada’s goal for this year’s Games is to finish among the top three countries in the gold medal count, and Parisi says that’s very realistic. “We are entering these Games as the reigning gold medallists in sledge hockey and curling, and we’re the world champions in curling and para-alpine skiing.”

Though Team Canada has yet to be officially announced, Woolstencroft, five-time Paralympic medallist in standing para-alpine skiing; Labonté, captain of the defending champions in sledge hockey; and the cross-country skiing McKeevers, Brian and his guide and brother, Robin, are sure to be headed to Vancouver.
The Canadian Paralympic Committee is committed to helping the Paralympic movement grow, and thus they have created various programs to help accomplish that goal. One of these programs, the Paralympic Heroes program, has Paralympic athletes visiting schools and signing autographs to spread the word.
Parisi says that the athletes are excited to continue their ambassadorial work by competing on home soil and helping to shine a light on the Paralympics. “They all recognize that this is the biggest festival of Paralympic sport that’s ever happened in this country, and they’re very proud to be part of it and proud of what that will do in terms of building awareness and changing the perception of what disability is.”

The Paralympics will run from March 12 to 21.

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