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Bob Matthews recalls exactly where he was when he realised that the Paralympics had been transformed from a postscript to the Olympic Games into a sporting event making its way into the mainstream.
Matthews, Britain's multi-medal winning blind middle-distance runner, was in Barcelona in 1992, his fourth Paralympics, preparing to compete.
“It was before the 800m. There was a blind Spanish girl running in the women's 800m before my event, and I was standing in the tunnel, waiting to come out, and you could hear where the athletes were on the track from where the sound was coming from. There were 52,000 people in the stadium who had gone along to watch.
“When I was running, my guide [who runs attached to Matthews by a short rope] had to shout for me to be able to hear him. I have run at Bislet [in Oslo] and that was fantastic but Barcelona was brilliant. It was the way the organisers embraced the Paralympics in a way that didn't say, ‘the main thing's over, now let's let the disabled people have a go'.”
Matthews is an authority on the Paralympics, having competed in six Games beginning in 1980, winning eight gold and other medals. At 43 he is now on the eve of his seventh in Athens, which begin on Friday.
Just as a month ago the world was worried about Greek preparedness, he has a few concerns of his own. A particular one is whether the Greeks will support the event, given the swathes of empty seats at many venues during the Olympics.
Like the Olympic Games themselves, the Paralympics will need to be a spectacular success to retain the golden glow generated in Sydney four years ago, reclaimed from what Matthews describes as the “after the Lord's Mayor's show” attitude of Atlanta in 1996.
If Barcelona felt like a breakthrough Games for Paralympians, then Sydney proved just what heights the Games can be taken to when whole-heartedly embraced by the host city. “Sydney was a 60-day festival of sport, not just the Olympics followed by the Paralympics. It was fantastic,” he says.
The Sydney crowds gave Matthews his first taste of the public adulation showered on his better known, able-bodied peers.
“I won a gold, and heading out of the stadium to go into Sydney for a celebratory meal, it took my wife and I an hour to get from the stadium to the train, which is about 400 yards away, as people were stopping us for autographs and photos. When I got on the train I got a round of applause. I guess Olympians get that all the time but it was something that just hadn't happened before,” he says.
That was a far cry from 1980, when the Paralympics were not held in the same country as the Olympics: “It was in Holland as the Russians did not recognise physical disability.”
It was not just the Russians, however, whose attitudes to disabled sport needed modification.
“After the 1980 Games, there was a very patronising 45-minute programme on the BBC, that said ‘look at these people and how they are actually enjoying themselves'. I think there was more footage shot of people celebrating afterwards inthe disco, and the medalsand sport were incidental.” Public opinion, too, was disheartening: “Initially there were letters asking, ‘how dare you bring this sort of image into the home'.”
Exposure to the sporting excellence on show has gradually transformed opinion, to the extent that the public has been asking to see more of the Paralympics, something the BBC at least has acceded to. Disabled athletes in Britain have also been given access to similar funding as their able-bodied colleagues, through the world-class performance scheme that distributes National Lottery cash to the nation's brightest medal hopes.
And although sponsorship has been more difficult to come by, organisations such as internet service provider UK Online, which sponsors the British Paralympic Association, have also lightened the load, allowing Matthews to be “not much worse off” for not working.
Crucially it gives him time to prepare, a task made more difficult by the need to find and train with a sighted guide runner Paul Harwood is his man in Athens who himself needs to be a fine athlete and to make sacrifices to compete.
All this will allow Matthews to enter the 5,000m in the Olympic Stadium, where he will run in memory of his wife Kath who died suddenly last year, in his quest for yet another medal.
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