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London marks 2-year countdown to Paralympics

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LONDON — London will mark the two-year countdown to the homecoming of the Paralympics on Sunday, celebrating the growing prominence of the event and its start in England in 1948.

More than 500,000 people have already registered interest in buying tickets on the London 2012 website for the 12-day event, and organizers hope to attract a global TV audience of 4 billion.

The official mascot Mandeville is a nod to the location of the first games, which coincided with the 1948 London Olympics. That event featured only 16 patients British soldiers paralyzed in World War II who were recovering at Stoke Mandeville hospital near London and advised to engage in sport as part of treatment.

London 2012 organizers are hoping the Aug. 29-Sept. 9 Paralympics will bring in the most lucrative TV deals yet for the event, having already secured unprecedented coverage on Britain’s Channel 4.

“We’re breaking new ground with the revenue that we’re bringing in,” said London 2012 director of Paralympic integration Chris Holmes a former Paralympic swimming champion. “And Mandeville will be an incredibly important piece of how we connect and engage with the public. It’s really fantastic that we’ve got that history in Stoke Mandeville and it’s coming home in 2012 with a modern international festival of Paralympic sport.”

The 1948 games were not just the starting gun for a sporting revolution, but to technological improvements that changed the lives of disabled people and led to their growing acceptance in society.

“If you look back to the early years, the view of disability was inherently negative,” 11-time British Paralympic champion Tanni Grey-Thompson said. “Now the Paralympics have been raised to a whole new level in terms of sponsors and highlighting what the disabled can achieve.”

Grey-Thompson, Britain’s most successful disabled athlete, highlights the rapid advances in treatment since 1948.

“Until that point, if you had a spinal cord injury you were left in hospital to die and life expectancy was seven years,” she said. “Now if you have a spinal cord injury you are likely to live as long as anyone else.

“Sport has helped drive medical changes and that medical technology has helped change sport.”

Medical technology such as the carbon-fiber prosthetic limbs are used by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. The “Blade Runner” is hoping to be the first track and field athlete to compete in both the Paralympic and Olympic Games.

Natalie du Toit of South Africa achieved that in the pool at Beijing 2008.

Britain was second only to China in the Paralympic medal table in Beijing, winning 42 gold and 102 medals.

British hopes in London will be led by 15-year-old swimmer Eleanor Simmonds, who this month won four world championship gold medals.

By Rob Harris, AP Sports Writer

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