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Paralympics raised the bar

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The Winter Olympics were a huge success, bringing Canadians together as never before, shining a new light on our province, and proving that yes, we can do it.

There is a good chance, however, that Vancouver 2010 will be known as much for the Paralympics that followed as for the Olympics themselves.

For the first time in the history of the Games, disabled athletes were celebrated not for the adversity they had overcome, but for their athletic abilities. They were recognized for their accomplishments by an adoring public, by the world’s media, and by the organizers of the Games.

In Vancouver, the medals given to the Paralympians had the same heft and value as the medals given to Olympians. For the first time, the athletes did not have to accept cheap imitations of the real thing.

We should be proud of what has been achieved. The organizers of Vancouver 2010 made a commitment that the Paralympics were just as important as the Olympics, and they followed through. It would be a huge mistake for the organizers of future Games — the summer ones in London in 2012, for example, or the winter ones in Sochi, Russia, in 2014 — to turn back the clock to a meaner, less inclusive time.

Perhaps the inspiration was former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan, who was in Turin in 2006 to accept the Olympic flag while sitting in his wheelchair. Perhaps it was Rick Hansen, the British Columbian who proved that a man in a wheelchair could still be a man in motion.

Hansen wheeled the Olympic torch into the opening ceremonies of the regular Games back on Feb. 12, sending a message to a worldwide audience that he — and all disabled athletes — were an integral part of the event. Never again should there be any doubt.

Athletes such as Lauren Woolstencroft, the University of Victoria graduate who won five gold medals in skiing, made the news across Canada. They have been recognized for what they achieved, just as the able-bodied athletes have been acknowledged.

The attention given to the Paralympics by the media did not match that given during the regular Games — but that had more to do with the fact that the Olympics had 15 events, and the Paralympics had only five.

A total of 1,200 journalists were at the Paralympics, more than ever before. Coverage was seen in more countries than ever before, and was more comprehensive. That increased attention is sure to generate more interest. London and Sochi, take note.

We have made tremendous progress — but there is still room for improvement. The most important change would be to merge the Paralympics with the regular Games, which would truly bring equality to the event.

It was fitting that the Paralympics ended on the 25th anniversary of the start of Hansen’s Man in Motion world tour. Hansen used the day to announce the Rick Hansen Institute, which will be devoted to increasing spinal cord research.

His goal is to raise $200 million for the institute. He was given a boost by Premier Gordon Campbell, who said the province will donate $25 million. Ottawa will provide $13.5 million over three years.

That is $38.5 million so far. By comparison, Hansen’s tour in the 1980s raised $26 million for spinal cord injury research, with another $200 million being donated in the years that followed.

If anyone can make the institute a reality, Hansen can. He has a history of setting high goals, and then meeting them.

Hansen has not let a disability slow him down — and neither has Woolstencroft, who was born missing both legs below the knee and one arm below the elbow, and today ranks as the best in the world.

These high-achieving athletes should serve as an inspiration to us all — just as the Paralympics in British Columbia should serve to inspire the organizers of all future Games.

That, we believe, will be the most important legacy of Vancouver 2010.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist

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