As a precursor to her upcoming coverage of para sport, Lizzie Bennett reflects on the highs of London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships and muses on what the future might have in store.
Since the 2012 Paralympics, London has been renowned amongst international para athletes for hosting the best competitions. The Olympic Stadium is fabulous for wheelchair access – lightyears ahead of most stadia – but it is the crowds that make the biggest difference. In London, athletes can come to expect thousands roaring them home.
This year was no exception. Whilst the stands were not packed, each night in Stratford saw around 20,000 spectators cheering on their favourite athletes.
In the stands and on the track, London 2017 did not disappoint. Here are a few of my highlights:
Petrucio Ferreira – Brazilian T47 (upper limb amputee) sprinter. With only two years’ athletics experience he took home Gold at his home Games in Rio in the 100m and repeated in London.
Samwel Mushai Kimani – Kenyan T11 (total visual impairment) distance runner. Like Ferreira, Kimani and his guide, James Boit, repeated their Rio success, doubling up to win the 1500m and 5000m.
Sophie Kamlish – British T44 (lower limb amputee) sprinter. Sophie has been on the scene for a few years, and claimed her first major championship title. After coming tantalisingly close to 100m success in Rio (a World Record in the heats was followed by a 4th place finish in the final), Sophie stormed home to claim Gold in London.
Mikey Branningan – American T20 (intellectual impairment) distance runner. Mikey is a particular favourite of mine. He faces harder challenges than most disabled athletes, but still maintains an insatiable drive to succeed – his work ethic is what I strive towards. Mikey took home 800m and 1500m Golds, and a 5000m Silver from London. What is more, the man is only twenty.
Abdullah Hayayei was in the news for the wrong reasons before the start of the Championships. He was killed during a training session at Newham when a piece of metal caging, which surrounds throw areas, collapsed on him. I make no apologies, however, for lowering the mood by drawing attention to this multi-event thrower from the UAE. He was a young man, only 36 years old, whose cerebral palsy did not stop him from wanting to win medals for his country and from making his large family, including five children, proud.
Lastly, it would be remiss to leave Hannah Cockroft off this list. The British wheelchair racer has been at the top of her game, and the sport, for several years and the fact that she is still cranking out new world records is astonishing – especially given that she battled food poisoning all week!
Having read my summary, you should know that to sound like a true para pro you should be aware of the crossroads at which para athletics finds itself: should London host the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships?
In London, both athletes and spectators win. Brent Lakatos, a Canadian wheelchair racer, even tweeted his support for London to become the permanent home of the Para Worlds.
Yet, there are athletes, notably Vanessa Low, a German sprinter and long jumper, who have pointed out that other cities and countries should be encouraged to learn from London’s example and be challenged to host their own international events for disabled people.
Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Low. I do not think that keeping disability sport in one location just because it is well-accepted there helps the sport over the long term. This is especially the case for athletes from countries which are less inclined to support para sport. Other countries can, and should, be stepping up their game!
Equally, if London were to host the games more permanently, we risk complacency. Yes, the UK does para athletics well, but no, we do not have a nation which is fair for disabled people and London itself is trailing behind many other cities in terms of accessibility. London is good, but not perfect.
Just as the performances of athletes would never improve without competition, the quality of the service provided by organisers will never progress without the ‘one-upmanship’ of successive organisers putting on their best show. Of course, this is visible every few years at Opening Ceremonies but goes way beyond and is more about facilities and exposure than pomp and circumstance.
Athletes want clean sport and top-notch facilities, those are whole other cans of worms for another time, but they also want spectators to cheer them on. In 2018, Berlin will be asked to show that it has what it takes to host this major event, and Freidrich Julius Beucher (head of the German Paralympic Committee) had this to say:
“We are convinced that Berlin will deliver excellent Championships and we are hoping for lots of attention, especially because the competition will begin just after the European Championships for able-bodied athletes. It is our hope that many spectators will be fascinated by para sport. I am sure that Berlin will be a success.”
After the success of London, it sounds like it is well and truly game on!
Lizzie Bennett is a Cambridge graduate whose experiences in para sport are largely shaped by sporting injuries. She’s generally to be found charging around in a bright green racing wheelchair or on the back of a horse.
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