Rio Paralympics put problems aside for gala opening
Thousands of fans and athletes will open the 2016 Rio Paralympics at a gala ceremony on Wednesday where organisers hope to draw a line under a chaotic build-up.
A Russian doping scandal and claims that the athletes’ classification system is being manipulated have made for a rocky start for the Games, which were also hit by serious financial concerns and worries over ticket sales.
But less than three weeks after the flame went out on South America’s first Olympics, Rio welcomes 4,300 Paralympians hoping to pull another successful event out of the fire.
Russian para-athletes, who finished second behind China in the London 2012 medals table, were last month barred from 12-day Games by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) following a World Anti-Doping Agency report which alleged a vast state-sponsored doping program.
Separately UK Athletics will review classifications after the Games, according to the BBC, following concerns that athletes were being mismatched, creating an unfair advantage.
“We are here to win medals, but within both the letter and the spirit of the Paralympics,” insisted British Paralympic Association chief Tim Hollingsworth.
The Games have also been overshadowed by financial worries and slow ticket sales. But organisers have reported a dramatic turnaround since the end of the Olympics, when only 300,000 tickets had been sold.
Despite half-empty venues dogging last month’s Olympics, Rio 2016 Paralympic organisers said that 1.5 million tickets had been sold and they hope that all 2.5 million will go.
– Blind sprinter –
Top stars in Rio include Iranian powerlifter Siamand Rahman, Britain’s wheelchair racer David Weir and China’s blind sprinter Liu Cuiqing.
Two new events — canoe-kayak and triathlon — make their appearance on the 22-sport menu, with competitors from 161 nations.
Six countries are sending athletes for the very first time, and Syrian swimmer Ibrahim Al-Hussein, who lost a leg in an explosion in his nation’s civil war, and Iranian discus thrower Shahrad Nasajpour make up a two-strong refugee team.
Caught in political and economic crises, Rio 2016 organisers have skimped as far as they can on food, transport and accommodation.
Part of Rio’s problem is that it is following London 2012, hailed as the best Paralympics ever in terms of public support and sporting performance.
To keep the Rio Games on track, city authorities had to promise 150 million reais ($46 million, 41 million euros) in August while the government got state companies to inject another 100 million reais in sponsorship.
As the Games finally get underway, the 41 career gold medals won by blind American swimmer Trischa Zorn between 1980 and 2004 looks unbeatable, but the Paralympics will inevitably produce new tales of courage.
The 28-year-old Rahman, disabled since birth, is aiming to become the first Paralympian to bench press 300kg. His rivals in the powerlifting over 107kg category have already conceded the gold medal to the Iranian.
– Show will go on –
China will have a record 308 athletes in Rio looking to beat their 95 gold medals from London when they topped the table for the third straight Paralympics.
They have swimmer Xu Qing competing in his fourth and possibly last Games, seeking to add to his seven gold medals.
Meanwhile Britain’s Weir is in Rio to add to his six gold medals. The 37-year-old, born with a spinal deformity that has kept him confined to a wheelchair since birth, is entered in five events.
“It will be my last Paralympics and I just want to medal,” he said. “If I come away with a medal, I’ll be happy. My coach is telling me that I’m quicker and faster than I’ve ever been, so that gives me a lot of confidence.”
And IPC president Philip Craven said that despite the cuts, the show will go on — something that looked in doubt when the funding crisis came to light last month.
“The Games will happen, but they may not be — I wouldn’t say tip-top, but maybe not as relatively luxurious as in the past,” he said.
“Paralympians are resilient people, (as are) the staff teams that back them up, and our Paralympic family will pull together,” added Craven.