LONDON (AFP) –
The London Paralympics end on Sunday with a celebration of 11 days of elite sporting action, amid claims of a “seismic” shift in social attitudes towards people with disabilities but hopes for greater inclusion.
As the last medals were won, attention shifted to the closing ceremony on Sunday evening, which the show’s artistic director has promised will be an emotional farewell to the Paralympic flame and a musical celebration of the human spirit.
Organisers billed the Games as the biggest and most high-profile in Paralympic history, with more media attention than ever before and a record 4,200 athletes from more than 160 countries, including for the first time reclusive North Korea.
London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe said that with 2.7 million tickets sold, packed venues and vocal crowds, the Games had not only created a global plaform for elite disabled sport but also helped change perceptions of people with disabilities.
“I really genuinely do think that we have had a seismic effect on shifting public attitudes,” he told a news conference at Olympic Park in east London.
“I don’t think people will ever see sport in the same way again. I don’t think they will ever see disability in the same way again. We have talked about what we can do rather than what we can’t do.”
One stand-out performer of the Games was British wheelchair racer David Weir, who on Sunday was roared to victory in the men’s marathon around the streets of central London for his fourth gold.
Australia beat Canada for “murderball” — wheelchair rugby — gold, while Russia were out for revenge over neighbours Ukraine for defeat in the seven-a-side football final in Beijing four years ago.
The final golds conclude the action, which notably saw the Games’ most high-profile athlete Oscar Pistorius stripped of his 100m and 200m crowns but then conclude the track and field programme with a stunning victory in the 400m.
But new stars have been found to challenge the South African “Blade Runner”, who made history last month by becoming the first double-amputee to compete at the Olympics, and the focus of the Games has shifted away from disability.
“I think people are going to look back at this Paralympic Games and for the first time really, truly believe that Paralympic sport is not just inspirational, it’s hardcore sport,” said Pistorius.
“It’s full of triumph, sometimes it has disappointment, but that’s what we look for in sport. We want it to be competitive and that’s what it’s been about.”
London was awarded the Olympics and Paralympics in 2005 and has had to face doubts in particular over the cost of the project, security and whether the city’s creaking transport system could cope with a massive influx of visitors.
But the efficient running of both events and the public response has defied naysayers who predicted chaos and a lack of enthusiasm.
The president of the International Paralympic Committee, Philip Craven, said the challenge was to maintain interest between now and the next Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016 — as well as increase participation around the world.
“We have to really concentrate on getting every country doing more Paralympic sport,” he added.
The daughter of German-Jewish neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, who organised the first recognised sporting event for disabled people in southern England in 1948, also said there was more work to do, despite improvements since her father’s time.
“We are not there yet. There is a way to go,” said Eva Loeffler, highlighting continued issues around accessibility for disabled people in society.
More countries needed to send athletes to the Paralympics, she said but added that the greater exposure afforded to Paralympians was positive.
“I think that more people will realise that disabled people are people,” she added.