LONDON — The Paralympic Games are opening in London, where the afterglow from the Olympic Games will shine on disabled athletes from around the world.
The Paralympic flame was lit amid much fanfare Tuesday at the place where concept of sports for disabled people originated, the town of Stoke-Mandeville, about 75 kilometers from this year's Olympic Park. From humble beginnings in a hospital courtyard in the 1940s, the Paralympics has grown to involve nearly 4,300 athletes from 166 countries.
The athletes will compete in some of the same events as Olympians, including running, swimming and cycling. And the Paralympians have some of their own events, like wheelchair basketball, and football for the visually impaired, in which competitors use a ball fitted with a bell and wear blindfolds to ensure none of them can see at all during the game.
British Paralympic team official Penny Briscoe is in charge of making sure her athletes perform at the highest level. But she says they will achieve something more.
"They are competing on a par with their Olympic counterparts," says Briscoe. "And I think that the more that we can get those images out worldwide, the more opportunity that we do have to change perceptions. And through changes in perceptions I think that we create opportunities for disabled people, whether it be in sport, whether it be in business, but also in terms of general life."
More people will see these Paralympic Games, with television broadcasts planned in dozens of countries. Nearly all the 2.5 million tickets for 11 days of competition have been sold. Officials say half a million people will come to Britain from abroad specifically to see the Paralympics.
The Games have spurred an expansion of handicapped-accessible facilities in London, particularly on the transport network. But the number-two official of the London 2012 organizing committee, Paul Deighton, says the Paralympics are more about perceptions than ramps and elevators.
"There are the broader social opportunities, which for me are really all about inclusion," he says. "And everyone who has worked with us has probably had more exposure to working alongside to people who may be in a wheelchair or maybe have a visual impairment. So for me, I do not think of it at all in terms of 'disability rights.' I think of it in terms of broader societal inclusion. And I think it is extraordinarily powerful in that respect."
The Olympic Park in East London has been transformed for the Paralympics, with the Olympic rings removed and the Paralympic "Agitos" put up, three curved lines depicting motion and progress. The athletes' village will be home to 1,800 people in wheelchairs, dozens of assistance dogs and a new high-tech workshop for repairing artificial limbs.
Officials are promising the best Paralympic Games ever, but what is certain is that it will be the biggest, best attended and most widely broadcast.