World Para Athletics Championships kick off at 2012 Paralympic venue, with Kadeena Cox and Abdellatif Baka among those changing the conversation
Almost five years since London 2012 introduced the wider public to the delights of disability sport, the city’s world-class athletics venue is the setting for what is being lauded as another major push in the right direction for the Paralympic movement. When the World Para Athletics Championships begin at the London Stadium on Friday morning, the memories of Jonnie Peacock’s lightning runs, David Weir’s awesome endurance and Hannah Cockroft’s unstoppable charges for the line will come flooding back, inducing a warm glow of nostalgia and hope for the stories that will be written over the next 10 days of competition.
Great Britain’s 49-strong squad feature familiar faces, including Peacock and Cockroft – although not Weir after the wheelchair racer’s angry retirement from track racing last September – and newer ones such as Kadeena Cox, the brilliant sprinter and cyclist who made Paralympic history in Rio last year by becoming the first British Paralympian to top the podium in two different sports since 1984. The presence of four debutants in the team shows disability sport in Britain continues to grow in strength after ParalympicsGB won 147 medals to finish second behind China in Rio.
With 202 medal events, approximately 1,300 athletes from 100 countries will compete in the world championships. Marlou van Rhijn, the self-styled Blade Babe from the Netherlands, will look to dominate again after double world titles in the T44 100m and 200m in 2013 and 2015. Markus Rehm, the German long jumper who was denied the chance to compete in last year’s Olympics after it was ruled his prosthetic leg would give him an unfair advantage, is aiming to break his world record of 8.40m in the T44 long jump. Tatyana McFadden, perhaps the most famous Para athlete in the US, brings star appeal. South Africa’s 15-year-old sensation Ntando Mahlangu, a double leg amputee, could cause a stir in the T44 200m. Then there is Abdellatif Baka, the visually impaired Algerian who not only broke a record in the T13 1500m in Rio but ran faster than the American Matt Centrowitz, who won gold in the able-bodied equivalent a month earlier.
For anyone who had adopted a patronising tone while talking about Para sport, Baka’s golden run was the perfect rebuttal. The idea of disability sport as inferior to the real thing, somehow less authentic, no longer holds water after the success of Rio 2016.
However, it was slightly disheartening to hear familiar rumblings of low ticket sales during the buildup to the competition in London. The situation has improved markedly since Doha 2015, when only 15,000 tickets were sold. Around 250,000 tickets have been bought, the biggest number outside of a Paralympic Games and more than every previous world championships combined, but there are fears the London Stadium’s 56,000 capacity could mean many sessions will be less than a third full.
It would be a shame if those potential gaps in the stands were used to belittle the event. If so, it will be evidence of the need for even greater efforts to raise the profile of Para sport, which can sometimes fall victim to being seen as less an elite athletic competition than a symbolic event driving social change.
Falling into that trap can be easy. This is of course another seminal moment, the first time the tournament has been held in the same city and summer as the IAAF equivalent in its 23-year history. That Para athletes will compete in the London Stadium a month before Usain Bolt does the same is a prominent talking point that deserves to be celebrated.
It is also worth pausing for a moment, to reflect on a journey that is yet to reach its final destination. Let us not forget that it is a year since preparations for the Rio Games were marred by budget cuts that compelled Sir Philip Craven, the International Paralympic Committee chairman, to warn the movement was facing the most serious crisis in the history of the Paralympic Games, first staged in 1960.
There can be no complacency or pats on the back because of a job well done; the playing field is not level yet. Part of the challenge for the IPC, which will hold a moment of silence at the opening ceremony for Abdullah Hayayei, the United Arab Emirates athlete who died in a training ground accident on Tuesday, is ensuring that equal billing for Para sport becomes a point of interest instead of a headline, to make people see the athlete before the impairment.
Part of altering perceptions and improving attitudes is not to make minorities feel as though they are different and apart. This is not to diminish the inspirational stories that enrich the sport’s appeal and offer hope to those crying out for help – or to downplay the movement’s power to change society. But there is a responsibility, too, not to forget about pure athletic achievement. The conversation still has to change.Read more at theguardian.com