The Big Read (Paralympics)

Alan Hubbard: Don’t let the wheelchairs distract you – the Paralympics, just like the Olympics, are all about sport and nothing more

Alan HubbardAnyone who has ever witnessed the Klitschko brothers fight in Germany will tell you that they are not attending a boxing contest, simply an event. Ecstatically cheering audiences, often up to 50,000, who pack the stadiums to capacity have little interest in who Vitali or Wladimir are fighting.

They are simply there for the spectacle, a gala night out. The idolised heavyweight champions could be playing pat-a-cake with one of the seven dwarfs for all they care. They are simply there for the spectacle.

It is the same for the Wimbledon final. Wasn't it Jimmy Connors who once said that the centre court customers would pay to watch it contested between two orangutans?

You get the drift.

My hope is that the crowds that will fill the Olympic Stadium in the coming 12 days won't be similarly doing so out of instinctive voyeurism, curiousity or because being there suddenly has become the vogue on the coattails of the Olympics themselves.

But that they are turning out in droves because they want to be there for the sport and not for the show.

The Paralympic Games have fought long and hard for recognition on merit as a sports event in itself and not as a adjunct to its able-bodied brother. London 2012 is the opportunity to demonstrate to the world that they really have come home.

Martine Wright_August_27
This is indeed an extraordinary happening. Some 4,200 competitors from 166 countries have been arriving in London's East End many, but by no means all in wheelchairs, on crutches, blind or limbless with stories that tug at the heart strings.

So many in fact, that one doesn't know where to start, but the one etched most deeply into my consciousness is that of Martine Wright (now Wiltshire, pictured above) the subject of the most poignant interview I have ever had in sport. A couple of years ago she told me of her miraculous recovery from the London terrorist bombing on July 7, 2005 when she lost both her legs and was the last one to be rescued from the Circle Line tube train after losing three quarters of her body's blood content. She talked of her dream of becoming a Paralympian and on Friday she will be representing ParalympicsGB in the preliminary rounds of sitting volleyball.

Hers is just one of the incredible tales of fortitude among the 301 British Paralympians. Everywhere you turn as you walk though the Games village, there are moving tales, not only of the unexpected but the unimaginable from home and overseas.

There's the South African swimmer Achmat Hassiem (pictured below), whose lower right leg was bitten off by a shark he had deliberately taunted to get it away from his little brother. A Rwandan volleyball team whose players lost their limbs fighting on opposite sides of the civil war.

Achmat Hassiem_August_27
It seems ironic that so many of these athletes are here because of something that is the very antithesis of sport – war.

Like Jon-Allan Butterworth, the cyclist who lost his arm in a rocket attack while serving in Iraq in 2007. Or Private Derek Derenalagi, the discus thrower who lost his legs the same year, when his vehicle was blown up by two Taliban mines. Or Captain Nick Beighton, leader of the rowing squad, who lost his legs in 2009 when he stepped on a mine in Afghanistan.

Others are here not by accident, but because of one. In 2005, Tom Aggar (pictured below), then aged 21, a 6 foot 3 inches tall rugby player, fell 12 foot on to concrete in the dark during a party. He awoke paralysed from the waist down, knowing that his life had changed forever. Three years later, he was rowing in the Beijing Paralympics, and won gold in the single scull event.

Stefanie Reid was a rugby-mad 15-year-old when she lost her right foot in a speedboat accident. She nearly died from loss of blood, but since retrained in athletics, partly because her prosthetic limb was considered a hazard for other rugby players. Now, she has christened it "the cheetah".

Tom Aggar_August_27
Then there are those who have battled against adversity from birth, like schoolgirl Jade Jones (pictured below) the 16 year-old wheelchair racing protégée of the most iconic British Paralympian of them all – Tanni Grey-Thompson. Jones was born without a thigh, but has emerged as a potential star of the Games.

I could go on... and on. Many of these stories have already unfolded and there will be scores more to come as the Games progress. It is virtually impossible to meet so many of these athletes and hear of their against all odds triumphs without finding a lump in the throat or a tear in the eye.

But this is precisely the reaction they do not want.  All they seek is normality and to be given the same serious appreciation as the Olympians who have preceded them.  They need our cheers, not our tears and a simple acknowledgement that what we are about to enjoy is not some sort of freak show but a genuine spectacle of sport.

Wayne Rooney's gashed leg may temporarily have pushed Oscar Pistorious' "bionic" ones off the back pages but once the Games are under way the unabashed fervour which swamped those earlier 17 days of glory surely will be revisited.

Jade Jone_August_27
In some ways it does seem a shame that the world's two biggest sporting events have to be treated separately. I am not suggesting that, as with the Commonwealth Games, the Paras should be interwoven with the Olympics. Clearly that is not practical. But did they really have to extinguish the Olympic Flame on August 12, only for it to be re-lit this week? At least keeping the flame alive would have made it seem more like a Games of two halves rather than two totally separate entities.

Yes, of course, they are different; they have to be by necessity. As different as the two men who respectively preside over them.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Jacques Rogge, 72, former Belgian surgeon, rugby player and yachtsman, highly respected and royally treated, if not overburdened with charisma, backed by a retinue of courtiers from palatial headquarters in Lausanne. A man of carefully considered words, he is due to step down next year.

The equally autonomous International Paralympic Committee (IPC) have Britain's Sir Philip Craven (pictured below, right), a 62-year-old blunt-speaking Lancastrian who lives in a modest bungalow near Bolton who became a wheelchair basketball player after breaking his back in a climbing accident. President since 2001, he hopes to go on to Rio, and a successful 2012 should secure that aim.

Sir Philip_Craven_and_Philippa_Johnson_August_27
He is a man of candour, not afraid to express opinions, and makes it clear that he is not altogether approving of the curiously patronising section in the British Paralympic Association's (BPA) media guide which warns against athletes being "patronised or pitied" (somewhat patronising in itself) and gives detailed instructions telling journalists how they should talk to people with disabilities, which phrases to use and those to avoid.

"That is ridiculous," says Sir Philip. "How do you talk to them? You talk to them as you would anyone else."

Quite. Which is why we should look at the Paralympic Games and those who play them with the same objectivity and critical assessment of performance that we did in the Olympics.

Because while what we see may be different, there is only one common denominator: it is called sport.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.

Tom Degun: After a fantastic Olympics, prepare to be surprised by the Paralympics

Tom Degun_-_ITGSo the London 2012 Olympics have come and gone in a blink of an eye and the whole of the UK still seems in a state of mourning following the euphoria and huge patriotism create by the event.

I was one of the lucky ones as I got to attend, amongst other events, both Ceremonies (pictured below), the 100 metre final, the majority of Michael Phelps' victories at the Aquatics Centre and of course that legendary super-Saturday where heptathlete Jess Ennis, long-jumper Greg Rutherford and distance-runner Mo Farah all claimed golds in the space of 46 minutes.

That hour, the finest in the history of British athletics, is one I will never forget because rarely have I been in a stadium where you feel like you can touch the electricity such was the deafening atmosphere in the place.

But I have to admit, my favourite part of the Olympics was not the sport, it was actually walking around the Olympic Park and seeing thousands of spectators, adults and children alike, trotting around with a smile on their face and saying how great the Olympics was.

It was the same on London's famously rude tube where; instead of avoiding eye contact as per usual; people were talking about the Games and discussing their favourite moments. It was truly a special feeling and undoubtedly sad when that Olympic Flame extinguished in the Stadium to draw things to a formal halt.

What next?

That was the main question that seemed to be emanating from the thousands of deflated spectators that shuffled off the Olympic Park following the Olympic Closing Ceremony.

Bizarrely forgotten was the fact that London 2012 is not over because there is a whole Paralympics to come.

Tom Degun_22_August
I must declare an interest in the Paralympics because as the Paralympics Correspondent of insidethegames, I have covered almost every single element of the Games and the key players involved since we launched our dedicated Paralympic website - - on December 3, 2009 - exactly 1,000 days before the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony.

But I am happy to admit that at the start, I did not have an in-depth knowledge of Paralympic sport.

I knew the basics: That there was a South African guy called Oscar Pistorius who controversially competes against able-bodied athletes, that Britain was pretty good at the Paralympics having finished second on the medal at the last three Summer Paralympics and that London 2012 was aiming to change perceptions of disabled people.

It was around this point that I first encountered the legendary Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, Britain's 11-time Paralympic wheelchair racing champion, and I remember well when she told me that she "didn't care if people came to the Paralympics just because they couldn't get Olympic tickets."

"I just want them to come and then they will see what it is all about," she said.

At that point, she knew something I didn't.

Several months later, in May 2010, I headed to the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester and on the eve of the event, I met Pistorius himself.

In a long one-on-one interview with the South African, I remember grilling him about why he still wanted to compete at the Paralympics if he could make the Olympics, which he ultimately did.

wheelchair basketball_22_August
His message was remarkable similar to the one Tanni gave me.

"It's not a second grade version of any able-bodied sport," he told me.

"It's got triumph; it's got disaster and it's got everything else you need for great sport."

I didn't fully understand what he was talking about either until a day or so later when I settled down to watch my first wheelchair basketball match – Britain v Australia.

Within seconds of the first brutal collision of wheelchairs, I realised what I had been missing. It was a game with as much skill, precision, ability and power as any sport I had seen before (pictured above). I was completely hypnotised by the fact that these athletes that we would could "disabled" appeared be more able than most.

Several years on, we reach the London 2012 Paralympics, and like Tanni and Oscar, who I am now lucky enough to call friends, I know what is coming. I will be one of the few at the venues that will not be surprised at how phenomenal the athletes are.

I was reminded of it just this week when I went to see the Japanese Paralympic swimming team train at Basildon Sporting Village (pictured below), not far from where I live.

The pool has a glass window so that the public can see in and a mother and her two young children were walking past as one of the Japanese swimmers with no arms performed a superb dive into the pool.

As he dived, I saw the mother and her children stop suddenly in their tracks, with their mouths open, at the remarkable achievement.

They then pressed their faces to the glass for a closer look and stood there for several minutes.

Japanese Paralympic_swimming_22_August
As I turned back to the pool, all I saw was the swimmer wearing a frown because the dive had not been performed absolutely perfectly.

I imagine I will see a lot of shocked and surprised faces in the crowd at the Paralympics.

I myself had one when I first saw Paralympic sport and realised what these athletes can do.

But once that surprise wears off, and it will do quickly, I know that Britain will sit back and enjoy world class sport just as they did at the Olympics.


Because they will quickly realise the Paralympics is not a second grade version of any able-bodied sport.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insideworldparasport. To follow him on Twitter click here.

Alan Hubbard: Baroness Tanni deserves to perform Flame-lighting ceremony honours

Alan HubbardTanni Grey-Thompson (pictured below) – she says she still has to stifle a giggle when addressed as Baroness – will be in the BBC radio commentary box when the Paralympic Games begin next Wednesday.

However I imagine I am not alone in hoping that she will be leaving the mic behind for a moment to do the honours when it comes to the Flame-lighting ceremony, for no-one deserves it more.

More than anyone, she has raised the status of disability sport in this country to an unprecedented level where there is such genuine public enthusiasm and support that for the first time in their 52-year history they will be a sell-out.

"I can't wait for them to start, I'm completely exhausted already," she tells me during yet another breathless week charging up and down the country. Have wheelchair will travel, has always been her motto.

"They are going to be amazing but after the Olympics there is such a lot to live up to, and I don't just mean about the medals - the organisation of the Games was just out of this world.

"I am just blown away by the ticket sales for the Paralympics. This time last year you just would have believed it possible that they would sell out. If you look at Atlanta [1996] and even Sydney [2000], not a huge number went and watched them. There were big crowds in Beijing [2008], but they gave the tickets away.

"I have always thought there would be a big support for a Paralympics in London but there's a difference from just turning on the telly to watch them to putting your credit card down and paying to go.

"I don't care if people are coming to the Paralympics because the tickets are cheaper or that they couldn't get them for the Olympics, the point is they're coming, and London 2012 has got the balance exactly right between the two Games. Like the Olympics, these will be the best Paralympics ever.

Tanni Grey-Thompson_21_August
"What I hope is that also like the Olympics, they will inspire young people to say 'yes I can do it'. I hope that if a young disabled person turns up at an athletics club they might be told 'well, we've never had disabled athletes before but we're going to try and do something with you.' I want these Games to inspire inclusion.

"I also hope then will encourage people be more open-minded and not just look at the disabled and think they are benefit scrounging cheats. They should think to themselves 'that could be me in five years'. "

Apart from her Five Live stint, Tanni she says she will be doing "a few bits and pieces" during the Games. Though she isn't quite sure what.

In view of her iconic status she does seem to have been somewhat under-used in their promotion.

Would she like to have been more involved? "I'm really happy with what I've done up to now. I've sat on a couple of LOCOG (London 2012) committees and made some promotional videos, so it will be nice just to go along and watch, even though I'm working while I'm doing it. I feel quite privileged about that."

Shelly Woods_21_August
There have been times when her relationship with the British Paralympic Association has been prickly, her outspokenness getting up the noses of the Blazers. "The BPA and me have always had differences of opinion and I wasn't always kept in the picture in the past but under this new regime things are brilliant - couldn't be better."

Before the Beijing Games, she had mentored one of Britain's top female wheelchair racers, Shelly Woods (pictured above).

But now she will be cheering on a 16-year-old local girl from Middlesbrough, who, by coincidence is named Jade Jones (pictured below), the same as the young taekwondo gold medallist. She is coached by Tanni's husband Ian and is number four in the world. Icons are always a hard act to follow but there are hopes she may be the new Tanni.

"She's had some amazing races this summer, over 100, 800 and 1,500 metres and she has beaten Shelly just before the Games. She's doing better times now than I did at the height of my career, so, yeah, she could just make it, she's a really smart young girl."

Since retiring from competitive sport five years ago, Cardiff-born Tanni, 43 – who won an unparalleled 11 Paralympic golds, set 30 world records and won six London Marathons - says she is busier than ever. "I am fortunate that I have found so many things to do in life to replace athletics. Nothing can ever be the same after you have competed at such a high level but all this gives me a great buzz – something that is meaningful and, I hope, productive. Life's chaotic these days, but then it always was."

Jade Jones_21_August
She says it is fortunate that her husband, a doctor of chemistry, sports scientist and coach, is able to work from home and is in a position to look after their ten-year-old daughter Carys.

As Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe she will be wrapping the ermine cloak around her again when she returns to the political fray at the House of Lords in October after the summer recess, warning that from next April, when the benefit cuts to the disabled start taking effect "I shall be very vocal."

She adds: "I know when I get up to speak, as I do quite often, some of them look at me and say 'oh no, not her again!', but that's what I'm there for, to speak up for sport and disabled people. These benefit cuts are going to be just horrible, just horrible, and so unfair."

Britain's greatest Paralympian led a revolt in the Upper House against the Government's Welfare Reform Bill earlier this year was narrowly unsuccessful while earning the admiration of fellow peers, among them Tory Lords Coe (pictured below) and Moynihan."Tanni's a revelation, quite inspirational" says  Coe. "She could have a great future in politics."

Invited two years ago as a People's Peer, Tanni surprisingly elected to sit as a cross-bencher, despite being an ardent lifelong Labour supporter. "It wasn't an easy decision," she admits. "My political views are left of centre but I think there are a lot of advantages of being a cross-bencher because you can vote with your heart, and in any case, I believe sport should be non-political. My passions are sport, women in sport and disabled people, and they kind of end up not being political, so I can put a bit of a different spin on it. I am not  there to spout about things of which I have no previous experience, but I am an ex-athlete, I am a mum and I have a disability so all that combines to give a different perspective.

"It was a deep desire to help make positive changes that first drove me into politics as a student [she has a degree in political sciences from Loughborough University] and this still burns as bright as ever. I've had many challenges in life and sport but going into the House of Lords is probably the greatest ever.

"It was made clear to me when I first joined the House that I was given a couple of years just to learn the ropes but after the Games is the time that I hope to really start making an impact.

Lord Coe_21_August
"Health is one debate that immediately jumps out. And not just regarding the many problems regarding disability [she has been in a wheelchair since she was seven, having been born with spina bifida]. Change also needs to be instigated in issues ranging from assisted suicide to care in the home and the legacy of London 2012.

"The whole thing about the sports legacy after the Games is going to be interesting particularly the vexing situation on school playing fields. The Games has been the fairy dust, it is not up to Locog to drive any changes forward, it's those in sport themselves, MPs in Parliament and those of us in the House of Lords who speak on sport like Colin, Seb, Baroness Sue Campbell and me who now have a massive role to play, together with people on the governing bodies. They just cannot accept that things are going to continue to happen in the way they have."

She says she would love to be involved in one of those administrative bodies and interestingly there are several situations vacant, with openings for the chairs of a merged UK Sport/Sport England and the British Olympic Association among them. Tanni could fit into either.

"There seems to be some musical chairs going on, which is fascinating. I find sports politics as interesting as real politics.

"Yes, I'd be happy to be given some sort of role, as you know I've always got some opinion on sport,  but whether people want to listen to it, I don't know.

Sir Steve Redgrave is a runner for the BOA chair, as are fellow former gold medallists Sir Matthew Pinsent, David Hemery and hockey's Richard Leman, a close friend of the exiting Lord Moynihan. But with women rising to the top and the Paralympics looking to be a big success, could the bold Baroness emerge as a surprise candidate? It would be an inspired choice.

As would that next week. No-one has done more to light the fires of London's Paralympics which is why surely hers has to be the hand that light the Flame.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.

Stuart Lieberman: Men’s wheelchair tennis could be the hidden charm of the Paralympics

Stuart Lieberman_August_16Everybody's talking about the sprints, swims and three-point shots expected to come in the British capital later this month.

But one of the more untouched stories at the London 2012 Paralympic Games – the men's singles wheelchair tennis competition – may be one of its best-hidden charms.

On the women's side of the court, the Netherlands' Esther Vergeer has been the most dominant player in the world for nearly a decade. She has not lost a singles match since 2003, and has extended her unbeaten streak to well over 450 matches.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) released their London 2012 media guide this week, and after taking a read through it, there does not seem to be one clear favourite among the 64 men's singles entries.

It's really anyone's game at Eton Manor, the first Paralympic-only venue of six courts specially built for the London 2012 wheelchair tennis events.

Let's take a brief look at who has a shot to reach the podium, stun the crowds and become the world's best.

The first name we must mention is Japan's Shingo Kunieda (pictured below), who won gold at Beijing 2008 and has the chance to go down in the history books as the first player to win two men's singles Paralympic titles.

Shingo Kunieda_August_16_
Despite being battered with injuries since Beijing, everyone will be out to beat the reigning Paralympic champion in London, who is now number two in the world rankings. Kunieda, 28, has won 20 Grand Slams since 2006, including 11 in singles and recorded a 106-match winning streak from 2007-2010.

The right-hander's biggest challengers at Eton Manor will most likely be Stéphane Houdet of France and the Netherlands' Maikel Scheffers (pictured below), as the two have traded off the title of world number one since Kunieda fell from the spot last December.

Houdet will enter the Games ranked as the top player in the world. He was the one who ended Kuneida's 106-match streak in November 2010 and became world number one for the first time in June after winning his first Grand Slam title at Roland Garros.

Scheffers, number three in the world, is simply a beast on the court. There is no better way to say it. His facial expressions on the court will frighten you.

The Dutchman ended 2011 as the world champion, having won two of the four Grand Slam titles and backing up a long Dutch tradition of wheelchair tennis excellence. With Vergeer as his training partner, it is certain he has the knowledge of what it takes to be a winner.

Maikel Scheffers_August_16_
His compatriot, Robin Amerlaan, won silver at Beijing 2008 and gold at Athens 2004 and could be a dark horse to top the podium in London. Though he currently sits as number 10 in the world, the veteran has arguably more experience than anyone and will not falter under pressure.

I cannot go without mentioning Argentinian 18-year-old Gustavo Fernández (pictured below, centre), who may just be the story of 2012 so far.

Unknown to the world this time last year, Fernández could become the first South American to medal in wheelchair tennis at the Paralympics. He is number one in the world in the junior rankings, and after winning gold at the 2011 Parapan American Games and taking the Japan Open title this year has risen to number five in the men's singles rankings.

With a large fan base and some upsets against the world's best on his CV, Fernández could shock the field in London.

Let's not forget Britain's Gordon Reid as well, who is the world's number nine, but with the host nation crowd behind him could feel like world number one.

Gustavo Fernandez_Pan_Americans_August_16

Do not be surprised to see Reid, or even Steffan Olsson of Sweden, the Netherlands' Ronald Vink or Michael Jeremiasz from France on the podium after the finals on September 8.

In fact, do not be surprised by any results in the men's wheelchair tennis competition.

Anything can happen.

It's the Paralympic Games.

Stuart Lieberman is the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) editorial and social media co-ordinator. Read his blog here

Mark Colbourne: With the hard training almost over, I’m ready for the Paralympics

Mark Colbourne_august_2The first week in July saw the ParalympicsGB cycling team selected for the London 2012 Paralympics stay at the St Pierre Hotel and Country Club in Chepstow for the week, while we trained at the National Velodrome in Newport.

St Pierre is our holding camp venue before the transition up to London one week before the Games.

The first week of my training on the track was a small shock to my system, having had only two weeks back on the track in Manchester after my training abroad. But with my legs finding their power again, the efforts on the track were going to be increased every day to maximise my improvements for London over the next two weeks.

On the Sunday July 8, fellow cyclist and Paralympic gold medallist Jody Cundy and I were invited to take part in a Sky ride for the public at the Velodrome in Newport as part of the celebrations of 50 days to go before the start of the Paralympics.

Colbourne at_Time_Trial_August_2
The day was organised to invite the public to take part in safe cycling with trained staff on the roads around Newport. Jody (pictured below, left next to Colbourne) and I had a fab time and made lots of new cycling friends, who also enjoyed their cycling experiences around the coastline roads in the sun.

My second week of track training in Newport saw some progress at last. The first week was more like a baptism of fire for me trying to achieve some really fast times on the boards, as well as get used to training at maximum on every effort. The week session was broken up with a three-hour road ride with two of the team members who really enjoyed the Welsh countryside, apart from the rain, which was warm but very wet.

While I was at the camp in Newport, I had the pleasure of being interviewed over the telephone by Stuart Lieberman from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

The IPC oversees all Paralympic sports across the globe, so it was my pleasure to share my epic life-changing story with Stuart and explain just how my life has changed since becoming a Para-cyclist and also a Paralympic hopeful. I had to explain who Dewi the Dragon (pictured second image down) was and how he was going to help me in London, as my Paralympic mascot.

Mark Colbourne_and_Jody_Cundy_August_2
On July 13, the team and I went to the Crown Plaza Hotel in London to have our official suit fitting for the Paralympic Games, supplied by retailer Next.

It was a brilliant experience for everyone that attended. This was the first time we had the chance to mingle with our fellow ParalympicsGB athletes from all the other sports who will be competing in London during August and September.

The journey back to Manchester that night was very slow and certainly a long one, having taken us six hours to drive back, as the traffic was bedlam. The next day I was keen to get back on my bike and felt really good on my two-hour road ride on my TT bike, which was, thankfully, spent in the sunshine.

Monday July 16 saw the start of my six-week double training sessions on the track. This involved a road ride in the morning, then a full on track session in the afternoon, plus, gym twice a week. I do honestly enjoy these sessions; it's just a case of working hard and then sleeping through the tiredness before the benefits are seen a few weeks later.

Dewi the_Dragon_August_2
Shortly after, I was invited by Paralympic partner Deloitte to a private function to share my experiences and my life-changing story with some of their young clients in Manchester. Deloitte are the professional services supporter for London 2012 and among the country's leading professional services firms. My talk went really well and I had the pleasure of holding an Olympic Torch (pictured below, right). It felt rather surreal to actually be holding a real one. The evening was a great success and enjoyed by all. At times I still have to pinch myself to realise I am actually doing what I am doing for my country. It was my pleasure to talk and network with such a fabulous group of professionals.

My last week of training in July saw my track sessions time and time spent on the TT bike increase. This extra amount of training helps me to overload my body before I start my final few weeks of preparation, for the biggest challenge of my cycling career at the London 2012 Paralympics.

The end of July saw Jody Cundy and I, attend a BBC radio interview called World Have Your Say at the Manchester National Velodrome. The interview was broadcast live across the world and covered the global excitement that London 2012 has created. The interview went really well, especially as Bradley Wiggins had just won the Tour De France two days previously – so everyone was on a GB high.

Colbourne at_Deloitte_with_Torch_August_2
As the biggest sporting event on the planet began at the end of July, Olympic fever hit the UK with style. We saw hundreds of millions of people across the globe watch the Opening Ceremony in awe and with only four weeks to go before the Paralympics start, the whole of the UK will be behind every one of our ParalympicsGB athletes.

I am so excited to be a ParalympicsGB cyclist competing at a home Paralympic Games, knowing that very soon I will not only be racing on the same track as Sir Chris Hoy, but with 6,500 screaming fans in the stands. This is something that really does get me fired up to do well. I wish all Team GB and ParalympicsGB athletes all the very best for the Games and know we will make Britain proud by doing our absolute best!

Mark Colbourne is the reigning world champion in the C1 three kilometres pursuit and a major gold medal contender at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. The 42-year-old from Wales broke his back after a serious paragliding accident in May 2009. He took up cycling as part of rehabilitation and is now regarded as one of the best cyclists in the world.

Liam Harbison: It's all about delivery now

Liam Harbison_Irish_Paralympic_CommitteeWe've waited and watched for seven years as London has prepared itself to host the world's finest 4,200 elite athletes with disabilities for the Paralympic Games.

The usual pre-Games fears of venue readiness, budget overruns and security concerns - okay, this one may be valid in light of recent events - have been set aside as it's now the athletes' time to excel once again after the success of Beijing 2008.

It's now time for delivery.

The success of the venues, villages and accompanying service plans carefully crafted by London 2012 staff over those seven years await the most critical eye of all - the athlete. The support services and preparation programmes of National Paralympic Committees will be tested vigorously over the coming weeks by increasingly demanding expectations of athletes, National Federations, Government funding agencies and growing number of sponsors which the Paralympic movement has attracted.  Coaches and athletes are now in the final preparation phase hoping that they will deliver on their expectation of performance success at the Games.

The bottom line is the best laid plans all come down to critical moments to determine success and failure. Our job as a National Paralympic Committee is to create the correct environment, appoint the most effective support team and implement the optimum service support plan to allow the athletes to perform on their day of delivery. Our job is nearly done, as when the gun goes only the athlete can influence their ultimate outcome.

I have the huge honour of leading 49 proud Irish sportsmen and women to the London Paralympic Games. These Games represent the opportunity for appropriate and timely recognition for Paralympic athletes in Ireland and athletes of all countries competing. London marks the point at which Paralympic Sport in Ireland becomes mainstream.

Our three principle aims for the London cycle were to sustain the success of the Irish team, increase the team size from 48 in Beijing and establish relationships that would ensure every Irish person will know the Games are taking place and given the opportunity to understand and value the exceptional talent of Ireland's Paralympians (pictured below shooter Sean Baldwin).

Two out of three are secured to date with the team of 49 athletes in 10 sports representing our biggest team this century - surprisingly without a football seven-a-side team on this occasion - our many new partners and media organisations working together to promote Paralympic sport ensuring for the first time live coverage in Ireland by Setanta, supported by Allianz, of up to 10 hours daily.

The ultimate factor determining our success or failure is delivery on the field of play.  We are quietly confident the faith and support of the many sponsors and partners will be rewarded with supreme athletic achievement. Only time will tell if that will be reflected on the medal table.

We wait in hope for delivery!

Liam Harbison in the chief executive of Paralympics Ireland and Chef de Mission of the Irish team for the London 2012 Paralympics

Tom Degun: With London calling, ParalympicsGB rises

Tom Degun_with_itg_tie_onGiven the impeccably high standards London 2012 has set over the past few years, last week was not a particularly good week in terms of Olympic preparations.

Security worries have increased after 3,500 troops were drafted in by the Government to cover the shortfall left by the failure of contractor G4S to provide enough staff, traffic problems have heightened with the untimely closure of the M4 link, and it simply won't stop raining –which isn't really anyone's fault but it certainly dampens moods and increases fears we will have a wet Olympics.

Fortunately, I'm happy to report that it has been a far better week in terms of Paralympic preparations; specifically the British team preparations for the Paralympics.

Tuesday July 10 marked exactly 50 days to go the Paralympic Games and the British Paralympic Association (BPA) took the opportunity to name the final members of the ParalympicsGB team for London 2012 with the announcement of a 49-strong athletics team.

Headed by double Beijing 2008 wheelchair racing champion Dave Weir, Britain's most glamorous Paralympic team also included the likes of T42 200 metres world champion Richard Whitehead, F57 discus thrower Derek Derenalagi who has come through the Ministry of Defence's Battle Back programme and sprint sensation Jonnie Peacock, the 19-year-old from Cambridge who recently broke Oscar Pistorius' T44 world record in the 100m when he ran 10.85sec in Indianapolis.
Tom Degun_interviewing_Hugh_Robertson
The announcement took place in the plush surroundings of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in London, where Olympic and Sports Minister Hugh Robertson was full of praise for the athletes.

"The Paralympics is truly a phenomenal sporting competition and these athletes should be very proud they have qualified for London 2012," Robertson said."I wish the very best of luck to all those who have worked extremely hard to be selected and to build on the great success achieved in Beijing."

Just three days later, a two-day event was held at the stunning Westminster Park Plaza in London for the official ParalympicsGB Team Launch. Around that 95 per cent of the ParalympicsGB team attended to collect their final pieces of kit and complete final medicals as well as speak to the media for one of last times before the start of the Paralympics.

In several years of covering Paralympic sport, I have never seen such huge interest in it from the media, who were out in their droves trying to quiz the likes of swimming star Ellie Simmonds about the final stages of her preparations for London 2012.

It was, BPA chief executive Tim Hollingsworth informed me, one of the biggest events in the history of British Paralympic sport and it was undoubtedly a huge success.
View of_Old_Billingsgate
The two-day team launch was capped off by a glittering gala dinner on Saturday night at the beautiful and historic Old Billingsgate (pictured above), a fabulous Victorian building overlooking the River Thames.

Kitted out in their evening wear designed by Next (pictured below), all the Paralympians looked rather immaculate with VIPs in attendance including the likes of London 2012 chief executive Paul Deighton, 11-time Paralympic champion Baroness Tanni grey Thompson and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, who spoke at the dinner of how the Paralympic Games will be "the hidden gem" this summer. They were joined by high profile sponsors of the Games, such as BT, who make the whole thing possible while the dinner was hosted exceptionally by Channel 4's Rick Edwards, who will be a key member of the host broadcaster's coverage of the Paralympics and gave a few tasters of what to expect.

Messages of support came to the team via video link from the likes of Prime Minister David Cameron, footballer David Beckham and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton before BPA chairman Tim Reddish took to the stage.

ParalympicsGB before_dinner_at_Old_Billingsgate
"This is a special moment and no other team in the world will be having a send-off for the Paralympic Games quite like this," he said. "To compete at a home Games will be truly a special moment for every single one of you and I know you will represent your country with pride."

The dinner ended with a bizarre but humorous video of the BPA staff performing Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" for reasons I'm still unsure of but it somehow marked a fitting climax to a special week in the spotlight for Britain's Paralympians.

If the last few days were anything to go by, the rest of the world would be right to be worried as it is with real glitz and glamour that ParalympicsGB rises for London 2012.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insideworldparasport. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here

Tim Hollingsworth: Momentum and change, not legacy, are the real watchwords of London 2012

Tim HollingsworthLast week one of Britain's most celebrated sports journalists, Simon Barnes, started an article in The Times with the following sentence: "The problem with disabled people is that they make able-bodied people feel bad."

The line was written as an opening to his article about Oscar Pistorius (pictured below) and whether or not he should be allowed to compete in the Olympics Games as well as the Paralympics.

Barnes, drawing on his own life experience, makes a cogent and, in my view, compelling argument in favour.

In addition to the arguments around Oscar – what can't be argued is his supreme ability as an athlete – the article and its opening line highlights a much wider issue. It is something I have reflected on a great deal in the past year, when I had the absolute privilege of being appointed as chief executive of the British Paralympic Association (BPA). And it is something that is particularly relevant today – just 50 days to go until the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

That means we are just 50 days from over 4,200 athletes from over 165 countries starting 10 days of world class sporting competition. With ticket sales proving to be incredibly strong, and Channel 4, the British station, showing real commitment and passion in its planned television coverage, it means those athletes will be competing in front of huge crowds and audiences.

What makes this important is that all those athletes all have one thing in common – the fact they are disabled. It is self-evident that the vast majority of spectators at the venue or watching at home will not be. So somewhere over the course of the competition, for those non-disabled viewers there might be the discomfort Barnes (pictured bottom) describes.


But if there is I don't think it will last long. It will be replaced rapidly by the feeling you get watching any sport played at the highest level.

Oscar Pistorius_9_July
The thrill of the competition and the uncertainty of outcome. The wonder at the level at which the protagonists are operating. And, most of all, the joy of witnessing success – by which I mean not just the winning of British medals, of which I hope there will be plenty, but of every athlete achieving their goal.

Perhaps after that spectators will reflect again on the nature of the athletes' impairments. But by that stage perception will have been challenged and potentially already changed. By then it will be the achievement of the athlete that inspires – defining them clearly, resolutely, by what they can achieve and are able to do, rather than by what they cannot and are not.

What this means is that the Paralympics can, in fact, be a force for good beyond being a sporting spectacle. It can and should have a positive impact on wider society. Certainly that is our belief within the BPA – and it is an agenda on which we are firmly focused when thinking about the future. How can we use the inspiration and influence of London 2012 to challenge perceptions among non-disabled people, and inspire real and lasting change across wider society?

sledge hockey_9_July
To believe sport can do this is not a naive belief in its power. Nor is it to ignore the many challenges and deep-rooted problems faced by disabled people in society. It is based on an absolute belief that sport can impact, by cutting through and presenting a very positive, accessible image of disability. It starts with the sport and the excellence of the athletes is paramount.

That is why we, as an organisation, will remain focused primarily on our role supporting athletes and sports in preparing not just for London but for Sochi 2014, Rio 2016 and beyond. Without success on the field of play there is little credibility in the challenge. Inspiration cannot easily follow without the initial surge of wonder.

There is no doubt, however, that such inspiration can bring change. One of my favourite photographs is one taken during the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games: it shows Canadian kids, probably about 10 years old, playing hockey in the street – except they have taken their skateboards and are playing while sitting on them. Having seen ice sledge hockey (pictured above) at the Paralympics they are imitating it in the street – for no other reason than clearly they thought it looked a fun, exciting game; that it looked cool. It is images like that which makes me think that we, collectively, have an opportunity to make a difference.

Today 50 more athletes were added to the ParalympicsGB team for 2012. The team size going to London will be, at 292, by far the biggest ever, and we are competing in every sport and discipline. There will never be a better, more high profile and significant platform for Paralympic sport in this country, and we must use that to drive awareness, change perception, and bring about change.
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Most of all we must not accept this as the end. In my view it is not right to talk about "legacy" from the London Paralympics. The word suggests a high water mark, the point from which you cannot aspire further but instead must find ways to sustain that which you have.

That cannot be right for the Paralympics. London, instead, should be the catalyst to more: on the field of play as we target success at future Games but also off it as we seek to involve more disabled people in sport, and engage and challenge the perceptions of non-disabled people. We should talk not of legacy but momentum: a surge of activity, resource and commitment that brings more than we have now.

Despite the real challenges that exist there is no reason not to be optimistic that it can happen.

That is why the two words "momentum" and "change" sum up well what London 2012 can bring. And why I believe that the Paralympic Games can do more than any other event or movement to make Simon Barnes' opening line redundant.

Tim Hollingsworth is the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association. You can follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

Sir Philip Craven: From seven years to 50 days... the imminent Paralympics is a mouth-watering prospect

Sir Philip_CravenThe 50 days to go to the Paralympics mark almost feels like the place of no return, yet time has passed so quickly since 2005 for us to reach this point.

I remember seven years ago in Singapore watching my good friend, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge, open the envelope and pull out the piece of paper which read "London" and thinking "Wow!"

The fact that it is nearly here is mouth-watering to say the least.

All the Paralympic Games I have been involved in, going back to my first as a player in 1972, have been special.

However, as a proud Briton, I think London is going to be that extra bit special as the Games is heading back to its spiritual home.

Back in 1948, it was Sir Ludwig Guttmann who was responsible for kicking things off, organising the Stoke Mandeville Games (pictured below) featuring 16 injured World War Two veterans on a patch of grass at the back of a hospital.

This time round, the responsibility for organising the Games has fallen upon the shoulders of Seb Coe, Paul Deighton and Chris Holmes, the leaders of London 2012, who have quite simply done a tremendous job in bringing these Games together.

The teamwork ethic developed over the last seven years between the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and London 2012 has been excellent and I think this will certainly help come Games time.

1948 Stoke_Mandeville_Games_9_July
The Games, of course, has grown significantly in size since 1948 with 16 athletes becoming 4,200 and a handful of spectators becoming a paying public of millions.

Meanwhile, the TV viewers are now counted in the billions.

The expectation for the Games has also grown.

London 2012 and its partners have done a brilliant job in building awareness, and although many still say the Paralympics will be the surprise of London 2012 I think we are heading into them with a far greater expectation than ever before.

This Games could be a landmark for the Paralympic Movement in the same way that the Stoke Mandeville Games was back in 1948.

Sir Ludwig_Guttmann_statue_9_July
A few weeks ago, a statue of Sir Ludwig Guttmann (pictured above) was unveiled at Stoke Mandeville and who knows what will be revealed in 50 or 60 years' time to mark the success of London 2012.

To mark 50 days to go, the IPC has announced its plans to offer the most comprehensive coverage ever of a Paralympic Games.

I know I am biased, but the plans are really impressive and will enable everyone around the world to watch live action from many sports by logging onto

It is important that those people in territories that do not have live TV pictures are able to see the Games, and we believe through offering nearly 600 hours of live action via five online channels we will achieve this.

In addition to this, the site will also be uploading thousands of hours of video on-demand, so if you miss a live race you will easily be able to catch up.

Jonnie Peacock_9_July
Finally, one last word on Oscar Pistorius and his participation in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, a subject on which the IPC has faced many questions since last week's announcement.

Oscar is a great guy, a great athlete and a proud Paralympian.

The IPC's vision is all about inspiring and exciting the world, and by competing in the Olympics and Paralympics I am confident he will achieve this and help change perceptions on a global level about what can be achieved by a person with an impairment.

I wish him the best of luck for the Olympics and cannot wait to see him defend his titles in the Paralympics.

His 100 metres showdown on September 6 against world champion Jerome Singleton and new world record holder Jonnie Peacock (pictured above) could be one of the stand-out races of the Paralympics.

I look forward to seeing you all there.

Sir Philip Craven is President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member and sits on the London 2012 Board.

Peter Eriksson: Great performances in Stadskanaal and Indianapolis on our road to London 2012

Peter Eriksson_2Before we had even reached the end of the first day of competition at the IPC European Athletics Championships in Stadskanaal, Holland, I was starting to get hung up on the overall medal table.

The thing is, when we selected our small team of 18, I'd made a point of saying it wasn't purely about medals.

It was a stepping stone to London 2012 for most and Rio 2016 for some. It was about taking opportunities and using them for maximum benefit and not just satisfying our need to win.

For some of the athletes, such as 15-year-old T38 sprinter Olivia Breen (pictured below) who was making her debut, it was a learning experience and she did brilliantly with two personal best performances and two bronze medals.

For others it was about putting down a marker and building confidence before the Paralympic Games and Richard Whitehead did exactly that by clocking a new T42 200 metres world record time of 24.93sec.

Overall, we enjoyed a really successful Championships with 28 medals in total.

But the action didn't stop there.

We had another group of athletes at the US Paralympic Track and Field Trials in Indianapolis, in the United States, where we knew the competition would be at a more appropriate level for certain event groups, such as our wheelchair racers and a few of our male sprinters.

Olivia Breen_4_July
Those guys also made the most of their opportunities with world records from Jonnie Peacock (pictured below, in blue) of 10.85 in the T44 100m - the fastest ever time by an amputee sprinter - Mickey Bushell who clocked 14.38 in the T53 100m and Hannah Cockroft with 31.23 in the T34 200m.

There were also several personal bests from Jade Jones and Ola Abidogun.

Prior to the IPC European Championships and the US trials, we had a number of athletes out in Berlin at the German nationals.

Highlights included personal bests for Libby Clegg in the T12 100m (12.41) and 200m (26.10), improving her previous best times achieved at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, a personal best for Jordan Howe in the T35 100m (13.04) and a British record for Sean Clare in the F40 discus with a throw of 29.33 metres.

Jonnie Peacock_4_July
It's definitely been a really busy few months but I think [wheelchair racer] Shelly Woods summed it up when she said, at the start of the year, it was still a bit of a windy path but now she can see where it's leading and she just wants to ride it.

She's right.

The road to London is now pretty much clear and we're all heading in the same direction.

Now we just need to get back into some solid training so we're prepared to be the best we can be when it all begins on August 29.

Peter Eriksson is the UK Athletics Paralympic head coach and former mentor to Chantal Petitclerc of Canada, the most successful Paralympic track and field athlete in history. Eriksson is widely considered one of the best Paralympic athletics coaches in the world and in total; his athletes have won an astonishing 119 medals at the Paralympic Games.

Mike Mackenzie: Statue of Sir Ludwig Guttmann gives permanent recognition to the Paralympic founder

mike mackenzieThe importance of The Poppa Guttmann Trust project – to create a permanent new statue of him at Stoke Mandeville – was to recognise and celebrate the life, work and legacy of Sir Ludwig "Poppa" Guttmann.

In the year of the Paralympics returning to their country of birth at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, it was felt long overdue to have a permanent tribute to the man who saved spinal cord injured people and restored them to a useful and confident way of life.

Having found the answer to survival for his patients, he introduced sport to their rehabilitation.

Sir Ludwig_Poppa_Guttmann_games_26-06-12
He had the vision that this would become a global phenomenon and deliberately picked the first day of the London Olympic Games in 1948 for the first Stoke Mandeville Games to show that disability did not mean inability.

The unveiling of the new and only statue of Poppa Guttmann this weekend acted as a reunion for patients and staff from the days of Guttmann, reviving and stimulating the spirit of Stoke Mandeville.

With Paralympics coming home, we realised there would be a lot of focus on this remarkable man but possibly his greatest achievement might be overshadowed by his initiation of the Paralympics.

While everyone is astonished how his vision that sport for disabled people would become this global phenomenon, what must be acknowledged and not overlooked is his brilliance in saving and restoring people's lives following a spinal cord injury.

Stoke Mandeville_Statue_June_24
Without that, the life expectancy for someone with a spinal injury would have continued to be frighteningly short and virtually useless.

Sport for disabled people would not have developed had Guttmann not been able to use his medical ability first and then initiate the Stoke Mandeville Games.

A man to salute.

Mike Mackenzie is the chairman of The Poppa Guttmann Trust. One of the key objectives of The Trust is to advance the education of the Paralympic Movement and the work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. Mackenzie played a leading role in bringing about the creation of the permanent life-size bronze statue of Sir Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville as well as a cast bronze bust of the Paralympic founder that will appear at every Paralympic Games from London 2012 onwards.

Tom Degun: Historic Brands Hatch is well worth its place at the front of the grid of London 2012 venues

Tom DegunI was rather excited when I arrived at Brands Hatch, the legendary British motor racing circuit not far from Sevenoaks in Kent. Once used as a dirt-track motorcycle circuit on farmland, it hosted 12 Formula One British Grand Prix races between 1964 and 1986 and currently holds many British and international racing events.

But the track will soon take on an entirely different role when it becomes the road cycling venue for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

That is why I was there.

London 2012 took the opportunity to host a special training and media day for athletes where over 150 Paralympic road race and time trial cyclists from 26 national teams (pictured below) were given the opportunity to test the challenging eight-kilometre course, which starts and finishes at Brands Hatch and runs through Kent including the district of Sevenoaks.

Rather miraculously, given that it has been raining in the United Kingdom consistently for the last three months, the sun was out and it was pleasantly shining over the simply stunning-looking circuit as I ventured in. I'm no veteran when it comes to motor racing so I was rather gobsmacked by how breathtaking the venue looked in all its glory, with beautiful green trees framing the looping layout.

I didn't realise just how steep it was until I made my way down to the pit lane and saw what seemed like a vertical slope ahead of me where the track curves dramatically upwards shortly after the start line. The view made me rather sympathetic of the huge task that awaits the world's top Paralympians when they chase gold over the historic 4.2-kilometre Grand Prix layout in September.

Brands Hatch_Para-cycling_1_19_June
But that didn't seem to bother the likes of Britain's Beijing 2008 double Paralympic cycling champion Sarah Storey (pictured below), who simply raced round the track as if she was actually on a motorbike!

Another of the stars on show at Brands Hatch was, rather fittingly, the 45-year-old Italian former Formula One driver Alex Zanardi.

Zanardi – who once raced for Grand Prix teams Jordan, Minardi, Lotus and Williams, and won two Champ Car titles in America before losing his legs in a huge motor racing accident in 2001 – is aiming for a medal in handbiking at London 2012 and stands a great chance of making the podium. Look out for more on his story on this website shortly.

Sarah Storey_19_June
But back to the training day at Brands Hatch – and a delightful press conference featuring London 2012 director of Paralympic Integration Chris Holmes was held in one of the pit garages – which, I admit, was the first ever press conference I've attended that has been held in such a venue.

"I honestly think this will be one of the genuine surprise packages of the Paralympic Games," he said.

"Brands Hatch is a truly stunning venue and I recommend that everyone takes advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see sport like never before in the Garden of England."

It was a fitting tribute to Kent and a harsh reminder that the Paralympic road cycling, which takes place at Brands Hatch from September 5 to 8, will be the only London 2012 event held in this picturesque county, which has hosted numerous Olympic and Paralympic training camps.

Brands Hatch_19_June
But, in Brands Hatch (pictured above), Kent has a truly world class venue to celebrate.

It will be challenging, however.

The tough cycling course must be completed a different number of times by riders depending upon the event distance and the athlete's racing category.

Around 25 per cent of the course contains uphill sections, with a gradient of up to six per cent, while the route includes challenging bends, turns and technical sections.

But, unlike most road cycling events, the final kilometre of the circuit unfolds in front of the spectators, giving them a unique chance to watch the closing stages of the races on the famous old track from just a few metres away.

They will be a truly special moments, and will help make Brands Hatch the most worthy of venues for the London 2012 Paralympics.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insideworldparasport.

Julie O’Neill: Paralympic Games team nominations are now America's focus point

JULIE ONEILL_June_15We are in an important period for United States Paralympics with three consecutive Paralympic trial events in athletics, cycling and swimming set to see athletes nominated to Team USA for London 2012.

Trials and team selection events are often high pressured environments for athletes and their coaches, but they are also an exciting time as athletes who have focused for four, or perhaps even eight years - or more - achieve their dream of being nominated to a Paralympic team.

Team USA’s exciting stretch of trials kick off with swimming in Bismarck, North Dakota on June 14-16, followed by cycling in Augusta, Georgia on June 21-23 and concludes with track and field in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 29 to July 1.

In all, 34 athletes will earn nominations to the US swim team, 15 to cycling and 54 to track and field, comprising nearly half of the 2012 US Paralympic team that will compete in London in just a few short months.

Team USA is poised to have exceptional performances on the field of play in London and the trials and team selection are just the precursor to those. Athleticism, competitiveness, teamwork and strategy will all be strong factors in the competition at the trials and will characterise Team USA’s continued success in London and beyond.

Julie O’Neill is a team leader of sport performance at the United States Olympic Committee (USOC)

Evan O'Hanlon: Keep your eyes on Ireland's Jason Smyth at London 2012

Evan OHanlon_13-06-12I am a proud Paralympian, but to walk past me on the street you wouldn't guess it.

I can safely say that there are very few people that have realised I had a disability before I had decided to let them know because I am lucky enough to have a disability I can hide.

Years of practice have allowed me to perfect the art of walking and talking among able-bodied people without detection.

This is a great asset, one that holds great power and yes, it has allowed me to launch a surprise attack here and there on an unsuspecting victim.

But as we know from our cinema, such talents, like that of Paralympic athletes who have the ability to slide between the worlds of the able bodied and the disabled comes at a price.

Often for the less visual or 'sexy' disabilities this price comes in the form of recognition.

I am positive that if you are reading my blog, you have heard of South Africa's Oscar Pistorius (pictured below).

Oscar Pistorius_13-06-12
But have you heard of Jason Smyth?

As you no doubt know Oscar, the "Blade Runner" is chasing Olympic selection as we speak and there are few days that go by without mention of his story somewhere in the media.

Jason on the other hand as a T13 athlete has a visual impairment, and he does not have the media profile of Oscar, but he, too, is on a quest to be selected for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

While Oscar will attempt to compete in London in the 400 metres as he did at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Jason will attempt to compete in arguably the most competitive event in the realm of athletics – the men's 100m.

He did so successfully at the able-bodied world championships in 2011, a fact that was generally overlooked in the media during competition.

Jason Smyth_13-06-12
Jason (pictured above, far left) has a personal best of 10.22 seconds for the 100m, a time that places him amongst the most elite including able-bodied athletes, but as he wears no prosthetic or special equipment when he competes and needs no guide runner, his performances are often overlooked by the media.

As I have not met Jason personally, I cannot say that this plays on his mind or is a disappointing piece in the puzzle that is the life of an athlete, but I can say from personal experience that the fact that your achievements can sometimes be somewhat overlooked because of your particular disability can have a huge impact on an athlete.

Jason and others like him have worked hard to be where they are and should be properly recognised for that not only because of the personal impact it can have on an athlete when they feel that their performances have not been fairly rewarded, but probably more significantly because the longevity of Paralympic classes with minimal impairment will rely on the ability to fill fields at major events.

If role models are not provided and highlighted, or become jaded with the sport, future generations will be unaware of the opportunities available to them in the realm of Paralympic sport or, even worse, be aware but not inspired or encouraged properly to compete in the available classes.

Jason Smyth_13-06-121
Hopefully during the 2012 Paralympics, the media coverage will reflect the ideal that true equality comes from focusing on the athletic abilities and not the disabilities of each athlete or person.

After all, this is what the Paralympics is really about.

We, the athletes, our national and international bodies know.

Now, all we need to do is educate the media.

Evan O'Hanlon, who has cerebral palsy, is a triple Paralympic champion who competes in the T38 class. The 38-year-old from New South Wales is being widely tipped to be one of Australia's biggest medal hopes at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. His blog first appeared here.

Liz Johnson: I'm feeling in a good place with my training – now I can't wait to swim at my home Paralympic Games

Liz Johnson_22_MayAt the start of April I competed at the British International Disability Swimming Championships in Sheffield. I went into the competition feeling strong and with a real determination to get the time needed to qualify for this summer's Paralympic Games.

Once the event had started I felt in a much better place than I had been at the London test event a month earlier. I was happy with my 200 metres individual medley performance which continued into my 100m breaststroke heats.

Unfortunately the good run didn't continue and in the final my shoulder dislocated as it had done previously. It's actually quite ironic because, now that I'm fitter, I've found it more difficult to get the joint back into place when racing – whereas, previously, I've been able to knock it back easily!

I have been invited to Manchester to train at the high-performance centre with the other Paralympic hopefuls. There I can further develop and intensify my training – a great opportunity to train with the team in new surroundings, which is always welcome.

The focus will now be to continue with my training and to work with my physios and doctors to help heal and combat the issue with my shoulder in the best way possible.

I am currently in Majorca, where I am involved in a two-week training camp with the rest of the Paralympic team. We've been there a few times now, and have got to know the facilities and what we have to work with.

Liz Johnson_in_action_22_May
We've simply transfered our training schedule to the camp and focus on undergoing an intense period of training. A lot of new team members are attending so it is a great chance to get to know everyone better and develop those relationships that are key to any good team. While swimming is an individual sport, and ultimately you stand on the starting block alone, knowing your team is behind you and having that level of support is invaluable.

Now that the British International Disability Championships are over, the next big focus is, of course, on the Paralympic Games in London.

While attention among the public seems to be on the countdown to the spectacular event, as an athlete it all still seems a long way off. We're at the start of our last cycle of training and we must now concentrate on keeping everything on track. Most of our training time is in the bank, years and years  of hard work; now we've got to make sure we do everything in our power to keep fit and healthy, and be the best prepared we can be.

There's a fine balance, though, and I'm a firm believer in ensuring I have sufficient down time to keep my mind and body rested so that I'm ready for my intense training schedule.

Bring on the next few months!

Liz Johnson, a Paralympic Games 100 metres breaststroke gold and silver medallist in swimming, from Beijing 2008 and Athens 2004, is also a BT Ambassador. BT is the Official Communications Services Partner of London 2012. To find out more details, click here.