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Johannesburg - ‘We’ve had the curtain-raiser. Now for the big show.” Andy Scott, the man they call Mr Paralympics, had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he made that crack not long after the Olympics finished last week, but, then again, he wasn’t far off.
The Paralympics have become as firm a part of the South African sporting landscape as the Olympics. The cache of medals the Paralympians bring home from the Games has earned them millions of fans and was evidenced in the raucous send-off they had at OR Tambo on Tuesday afternoon when they left for London. So have the stories of the athletes, the tales of shark attacks, electric shocks, train accidents, boat accidents, car crashes, cancer survivors, bomb blasts and quirks of birth.
The stories behind the stories are as important as the medals, perhaps more so, although the South African Paralympic team may have become a victim of their own success.
They are expected to improve on the 30 medals they won in Beijing when they finished sixth in the medal table thanks to their 21 gold medals, three silver and six bronze. It will be no easy task. Disabled sport has not stood still over the last four years internationally and has continued to improve as the athletes are better funded and more resources are committed to enable more to become professional sports men and women.
At the team’s farewell banquet on Monday night, deputy sports minister Gert Oosthuizen said he expected the team to bring home 40 medals.
Tubby Reddy, the CEO of Sascoc, said on Tuesday expectations are that the team retain or improve on their overall placing in the medal table.
“I think it’s notoriously difficult to predict medals,” said Pieter Badenhorst, the team’s chef de mission. “As you saw from the medal table it was so congested at the top that there’s a difference of one gold medal from fifth spot and the 13th spot. If all things come to plan and we get those medals, then we will be on top. But if there’s one slip-up and there’s another nation, for example, Russia or Brazil, who we expect will be on the up as they are the host nation in four years time, then things could change.
“We can only do what we can do in terms of preparing the best that we can, as we did with the Operation Excellence programme, which started already after Beijing. Having done that, I believe that the medals will come. As for saying what number of medals we’ll win, it’s difficult to predict.”
The 2012 Paralympic team is one of superstars, experience and youngsters. Oscar Pistorius, who will carry the flag at the opening ceremony in London, and Natalie du Toit are the biggest names globally in disabled sport. Ernst van Dyk is a legend at the Boston Marathon with his nine titles in the wheelchair category and is a favourite for the hand-cycling gold in London; Hilton Langenhoven won three gold medals in long jump, 200m and pentathlon. It was the feat of the 2008 Paralympics, an enormously difficult programme handled with aplomb. The Somerset West athlete had given up his job in the run up to the 2008 Paralympics, and had lived hand to mouth reliant on donations from organisations and support from friends.
The last four years have been different. “It’s been fantastic,” said Langenhoven on Tuesday. “Since we came back from Beijing my life has changed in a huge way. To be able to stay five minutes away from the track and seven minutes from the gym, it’s made my life a whole lot easier. I must thank Sascoc and all the sponsors who have invested in Paralympic sport.
“The media have played a huge part as well, to give the positive stories about disabled sport in our country. If they continue to so then disabled sport will become one of the biggest sporting codes in our country.”
The curtain-raiser, as Scott said, is done. Now for the big show. The other big show, that is.