The world’s top athletes with a disability, including “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, converge on London next week for what organizers say will be the biggest and most high-profile Paralympics in the Games’ 52-year history.
A record 4,200 athletes from 166 countries will be in the British capital, with the 11-day Games a near sell-out and expected to be watched by an estimated global television audience of 4 billion people.
Britain is considered the birthplace of the Paralympic movement, after World War II veterans with spinal injuries competed in archery events at Stoke Mandeville in southern England in 1948, 12 years before the first official Paralympic Games in Rome.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said that history, a desire to see more elite sport after a successful Olympics, increased media coverage and sponsorship have combined to drive up interest and awareness.
“There’s a fantastic buzz in the air, waiting for it to kick off and people talking about it,” IPC president Philip Craven said before next Wednesday’s opening ceremony.
China held the last Paralympics in Beijing in 2008 and did much to raise the Games’ profile.
The previous hosts won 211 medals, including 89 gold, and will be looking to replicate that success this time round.
However, challenging them will be the current hosts, who came third in the Olympics medal table, galvanizing wide support for the Games across the country and lifting a national mood hit by lingering economic woes.
ParalympicsGB have been set a minimum target of 103 medals from at least 12 different sports — one better than in Beijing — and to match their second-place finish four years ago.
For the home team, hopes are highest for athletes like Jonnie Peacock, who in June set a new T44 100m record of 10.85 seconds and is expected to challenge South Africa’s Pistorius for gold in the showpiece track event.
With Pistorius’ long-standing rival Jerome Singleton of the US and a host of other lightning-fast sprinters likely to line up in the final, organizers even predict that all eight runners could dip under 11 seconds.
Among the wheelchair racers, Britain’s David Weir, the T54 800m and 1,500m champion four years ago, is set to renew his rivalries with Australia’s Kurt Fearnley and Swiss world-record holder Marcel Hug.