Thursday 6 September 2012

A fantastic morning at the Paralympics!

Well, after blogging about the Helsinki Stadium from 1952 and complaining that I hadn't made it inside the main stadium in London, a friend who had just happened to read my post contacted me with a spare ticket!

So, this morning I was privileged to enter the main stadium for 2012 and to witness a morning of absolutely inspiring athletics. This was my first time at a Paralympic event and I only wish I had been able to secure tickets for other events too. Almost 80,000 people crowded into the stadium to see heats of wheelchair athletics, heats of 100, 200 and 800 metres races for athletes with varying disabilities, discus throwing, shot putting and the totally stunning men's triple jump for blind athletes.

We will come back to the triple jump shortly, but one of the many striking things about the morning's events was the range of countries represented on the track and in the field. Of course, there were many athletes from the Paralympic superpowers - China, Russia, UK, Ukraine and USA - and lots of athletes from European countries - France, Spain and Germany as one might expect. But interestingly and very inspiringly, there were also athletes from countries as diverse as Iraq, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Rwanda and Cote D'Ivoire, demonstrating the truly world wide nature of the Paralympics and the determination to achieve against often overwhelming and seemingly impossible odds.

As well as some great races and field event competitions, we saw a number of medal ceremonies from the events of the previous day, including Oscar Pistorius collecting his gold medal with the rest of the South African squad for the 4 x 100metres relay.

But the star of the show for me was the 34 year old Duan Li of China, Beijing 2008 champion in the triple jump for blind athletes. He did not manage to retain his title, being pushed into second place by Denis Gulin of Russia, but what he did win was the hearts of the crowd. This event requires complete silence from the spectators. The triple jumpers are positioned on the runway by their guide who then stands at the take off board and calls directions until the athlete is within striking distance of the board, then moves aside as the athlete goes through the hop,step and jump phases into the pit. For able bodied athletes, the event requires speed, strength, balance and flexibility. For blind athletes it requires all of these plus total trust in their guide. Some athletes step outside of the line markings of the runway. Some - although surprisingly few - miss the board, taking off too early or too late, resulting in either short distances or a foul. The athletes take three jumps each and then the top eight competitors take a further three jumps before the medals are awarded.

So what was special about Duan? He is a showman. In the same way as some of the more flamboyant sited athletes encourage the crowd to clap them along the runway, Duan encourages the crowd to clap by clapping himself, raising his hands above his head for a few seconds before silencing the crowd by placing his arms out to his sides and hurtling along the runway. He is also a bit of a tease. Positioned on the runway wearing his tracksuit trousers, he whips them off with a flourish - velcro is a wonderful thing - to the delight and cheers of the crowd. Clearly disappointed in defeat, he recovered quickly and smiled and waived at the crowd after his final jump. Duan has a number of Paralympic medals in his collection. He already as a bronze medal from the long jump in London to add to medals won in the jumps in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and as already mentioned Beijing in 2008. A man of many talents, he also competed in the javelin in 2000. Hear Duan tell his story below.

We keep hearing that these games are intended to inspire a generation. I don't think the generation referred to is mine, but this morning's events moved, excited, humbled and inspired a gentleman of a certain age. Thanks a million for the ticket Tom - and a big thanks to the lady with the sunblock who tapped me on the shoulder worried that my hairless head would get burned!

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