After hosting a spectacular 'warm-up' Olympics, Londoners are now ready for the real event - the 2012 Summer Paralympics! The 11-day competition, which begins tonight and will continue through September 9th, 2012, enables athletes with disabilities ranging from mobility to blindness and even cerebral palsy, to showcase their athletic prowess in an international arena.
The modern Paralympics owe their existence to the ideas and efforts of one man - Dr. Ludwig Guttmann. The German born physician was firmly convinced that sports was the best way to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.
Believing that the disabled should also have an arena to compete, in 1948, the British resident organized the Stoke Mandeville Games. Timed to coincide with the London Summer Olympics this predecessor to the International Paralympics featured only one event - A wheelchair archery contest and, just 16 contestants -14 men and 2 women. However, the idea resonated with so many people that 12 years later, Rome hosted the world's first International Paralympics Games.
Things have come a long way since - Today the Summer Paralympics is the second largest sporting event in the world, surpassed only by the Olympics. And things are only getting better. With over 2.5 million advance tickets sold, organizers are expecting the 2012 event to be complete sellout - A first in the 50-year history of the Games. What's even more exciting is that a record-breaking 4,280 athletes representing 166 countries (19 more than were represented in Beijing) will be competing in one or more of the 22 events that include archery, sailing, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and even, fencing.
While all the competitions should be exciting among the most anticipated is the September 2nd, 5,000 meter wheelchair race final that is expected to include three outstanding athletes - Australia's Kurt Fearnley who won the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Great Britain's David Weir who won the 2011 World Championships and Switzerland's Marcel Hug, who happens to be the current world record holder.
Also exciting, will be the men's 100M T44 final that is scheduled for September 6th. Organized for amputees from the knee down, this race is predicted to feature the amazing Oscar Pistorius who made history as the first disabled athlete to compete with able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. The Blade Runner, who won the gold in 100, 200 and 400 meters in the Beijing Paralympics will be facing some tough competition from silver medalist Jerome Singleton (USA) and new world record holder, Jonnie Peacock (Great Britain). Blake Leeper, a 22-year old from the USA will also be a force to reckon with, given that he is going to be sporting the same sleek carbon fiber legs as Oscar.
Even if tennis is not your sport, the women's wheelchair tennis will be an event you may want to keep an eye on. That's because If all goes well, Esther Vergeer, the world's top-ranked wheelchair tennis player since 1999, will be there to defend her title and nab her 7th Paralympics gold! The Dutch sensation who has won 42 Grand Slams and 22 Year-end championships has not lost a match since 2003 - And we have no reason to believe she is going to start now. Except of course, if fellow team member Aniek van Koot gets in the way. We shall just have to wait and see!
However, before the exciting sporting events begin, all eyes will glued to tonight's opening ceremony, which is expected to be as stunning as the one witnessed on July 27th, albeit in a slightly different way. Dubbed 'Enlightenment' it will be led by famous physicist Stephen Hawking who will take the audience on an exquisite journey of discovery, showcasing the wonders of science. So be sure to tune in!
Resources: www.paralympic.org, bbcnews.com, www.london2012.org/paralympics, cnn.com