Paralympic athletes able to match Olympic greats

September 11th, 2008 - 9:32 am ICT by IANS  

Michael PhelpsBeijing, Sep 11 (Xinhua) It is the physical function that sets the participants in the Paralympics apart from their counterparts at the Olympics. But the distinction blurs when it comes to achieving the goal.US swimmer Erin Popovich, who stands 1.34 metres tall, plucked her third gold medal of the Beijing Paralympics with a world-record time of 1:31.60 in the women’s SB7 100m breaststroke.

The 23-year-old is often referred to as “the Paralympic Michael Phelps”, but it seems more accurate to pin a nickname on Phelps: “the Olympic Popovich”.

In the Athens Olympics in 2004, Phelps came up one short of matching Mark Spitz’s 1972 gold medal haul, while Popovich went 7-for-7 in five individual events and two relays in the ensuing Paralympics.

“The best thing about the Paralympic Games is that stereotypes are dispelled,” said Popovich. “You see someone in a wheelchair or with a certain disability and instead of dwelling on their problems, you see they are focused on what they can achieve. I’m blown away by their abilities.”

Popovich is not an exception at the Paralympics. More than 4,000 disabled athletes from around the world competing here want to be recognised - win or lose - for their sporting achievements.

South African sensation Oscar Pistorius started his quest for three gold medals on a winning note as the double amputee, using a pair of carbon-fibre prosthetic legs, overcame a slow start to win the men’s TT44 100m sprint in 11.17 seconds at the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Pistorius was born without his fibula, the smaller of the two bones in the lower legs, and when he was 11 months old both limbs were amputated below the knee.

The 21-year-old had sought to compete in last month’s Beijing Olympics but eventually failed to reach the qualifying standard.

Pistorius said had it not been for the legal case with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) - which ruled the J-shaped blades gave him an advantage over able-bodied athletes - he might have qualified for the Olympics.

However, Pistorius insisted that in no way did he consider topping the Paralympic podium a consolation prize for missing out on the Olympics.

“I never think that the Paralympics is a second class event,” he said.

“Coming to the Paralympics, the competition is always strong and it’s a world class event. It’s on the same stage as the Olympics and it’s something I’m very proud to be a part of.”

Pistorius’ comptriot Natalie du Toit, who led the South African Paralympic delegation at the opening ceremony last Saturday night, is by no means inferior to Olympians.

The first female amputee to compete in an able-bodied Olympics, du Toit finished 16th among 25 competitors in the 10-km open-water swim last month at the Beijing Games, which disappointed her but was a marvellous achievement to anyone else.

“She’s not just an inspiration to open-water swimmers and not just to sportsmen,” British silver medallist Keri-Anne Payne said after the race, “but to anybody in the whole world that you can do anything you want”.

Du Toit, who lost her lower left leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001, won five golds and a silver in the Athens Paralympics. Again, she will try for five golds in Beijing.

“It’s not about being disabled or able-bodied - it’s all the same to me,” she said. “I just get up and I race.”

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