C'wealth Games: Para athletes relish equal billing

The crowd at Hampden Park were all on their feet, screaming themselves hoarse for an athlete on the track who had captured their hearts and attention.

But it was not the world's fastest man Usain Bolt, or Olympic 400m champion Kirani James, or even England's long jump sensation Greg Rutherford who had stirred the emotions.

Instead, it was visually-impaired Libby Clegg who, with the aid of a guide, had just won the T11/12 100m final in a season-best time of 12.20sec.

After completing the race, tears flowed down the 24-year-old's cheeks as she deservedly lapped up the applause after capturing Scotland's first athletics gold of Glasgow 2014.

Such an inspiring scene on Monday could only be played out at the Commonwealth Games, as it is the only major multi-sport event to fully integrate athletes with disabilities into the main schedule.

In other major sporting events - such as the Olympics or the regional SEA Games - the para-sporting events are held after the main extravaganzas.

"Only at the Commonwealth Games do I get this kind of attention and love - it makes me feel special, in a very good way," said two-time Paralympic silver medallist Clegg.

Like their able-bodied counterparts at the Games, the medal hopefuls are the best in their fields, and have to go through rigorous selection to make the cut.

In Glasgow, 22 medal events are up for grabs across five para-sports: athletics, swimming, powerlifting, lawn bowls and, for the first time, track cycling.

It is a modest number compared to the overall programme of 261 medal events. Yet, unlike the demonstration disability sports held at the Olympics, all para events count towards the main medal tally at the Commonwealth Games.

In fact, Clegg's medal helped the hosts surpass their previous best of 12 golds at the quadrennial showpiece.

Getting prime-time coverage in front of sell-out crowds also seems to bring the best out of the para athletes.

Several world records were shattered in the pool at the Tollcross Swimming Centre, and even those who did not win earned plaudits.

Mauritius' Victor Scody, who finished more than 20sec off the pace in the men's 100m freestyle S9 heats, had a group of fans waiting for him outside the dressing room.

The 25-year-old, who has had his left leg amputated, said: "They thanked me for taking part and insisted that I keep competing at future Games because I'm inspiring others."

The Singapore Disability Sports Council did not nominate any para athletes to compete in Glasgow.

While logistical reasons have prevented the Olympics and Paralympics running together, which feature some 10,000 and 5,000 athletes respectively, can the Commonwealth Games' integrated model can be replicated at regional events like the SEA Games to better showcase para athletes?

At the last SEA Games edition in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, the Asean Para Games was held a fortnight after the main programme.

But, unlike the Commonwealth Games Federation that governs the entire schedule in Glasgow, the situation in South-east Asia is more complicated.

Said Singapore National Olympic Council secretary-general Chris Chan: "The SEA Games is under the guidance of the SEA Games Federation, separate from the Asean Para Games which the Asean Para Sports Federaton leads.

"Hence, to combine both programmes may not be as straightforward as it appears."

Nevertheless, Asean will do well to learn from the success of Glasgow 2014.

Commonwealth Games ambassador David Carry, who won two swimming golds for Scotland at the 2006 edition, said: "The para athletes have showed they're equally professional as able-bodied competitors, are absolutely dedicated, with a similar support network, same level of funding, and they just overcome barriers the rest of us just do not have.

"That realisation has given inspiration to so many people, and it's important it's capitalised on."


This article was published on Aug 1 in The Straits Times.

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