Paralympics Shatters Records, Raises the Bar

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By Miki Fairley

It was a time to break records. The 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, saw 304 world records and 448 Paralympic records shattered. A total of 136 nations participated, breaking the previous high of 123 nations represented at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia. The total number of athletes3,969 (2,763 men and 1,206 women)also set a new record, breaking the previous record of 3,843 set in Sydney.

China swept the medals race, winning a total of 141, including 63 gold, 46 silver, and 32 bronze. Australia captured second place, with 100 medals--26 gold, 38 silver, and 36 bronze.

Great Britain came next, winning a total of 94, with 35 gold, 30 silver, and 29 bronze. However, Great Britain ranked second in golds. The British honored both Olympic and Paralympic winners in a "Parade of Heroes" in London October 18. "This was an outstanding performance by Great Britain's Paralympians emulating their second place in Sydney with a smaller team and against the toughest competition the Paralympics has ever seen," said Phil Lane, CEO of the British Paralympic Association. "Our 35 golds and medal success in 11 different sports has been achieved by a huge effort from both the athletes and the Paralympic GB sports staff."

The United States was fourth, in both number of gold medals and total number of medals, with 27 gold medals, 22 silver, and 39 bronze, for a total of 88. Germany, France, and Canada took fifth, sixth, and seventh places respectively; however, Canada ranked third in number of golds with 28.

Disability--and triumph over it--knows no national boundaries, and some medal winners came from the less developed nations. For instance, a Botswana athlete won a gold medal; Kenya won seven medals--three gold, one silver, and three bronze; and Rwanda won a bronze medal.

The top Paralympics multi-medalist was swimmer Mayumi Narita of Japan, who captured seven gold and one bronze. US swimmer Erin Popovich of Butte, Montana, was close behind, with seven gold medals.

For the complete medals chart by country, visit the Paralympics page at the Athens 2004 web site.

'Home Team' Multiple Medalists

Besides Popovich, other US multiple medal winners were: Mikhaila Rutherford (Alameda, California), three gold, one silver: swimming; Jessica Long (Dundalk, Maryland), three gold medals: swimming; Michael Prout (West Springfield, Massachusetts), one gold, one bronze: swimming; Kelly Crowley (San Jose, California), one gold, one bronze: swimming; Ron Williams (Birmingham, Alabama), one silver, one bronze: cycling; Paul Martin (Boulder, Colorado), one silver, one bronze: cycling; Karissa Whitsell (Springfield, Oregon) and Katie Compton (Colorado Springs, Colorado), two gold, one silver, and one bronze: tandem cycling; Marlon Shirley (Chula Vista, California), one gold, one silver, and one bronze: track; Brian Frasure (Apex, North Carolina), one gold, one silver, and one bronze, track; and Cheri Blauwet (Larchwood, Iowa), one gold and two bronze: wheelchair race.

Brian Frasure
Brian Frasure

US team medals included gold in women's wheelchair basketball; bronze, men's quad rugby; bronze in men's archery; and bronze in women's sitting volleyball.

Highlights of the Games

Almost a million spectators viewed the games. The media were out in force; nearly 50 broadcasters were present--another record--and over 3,200 media representatives were accredited. A two-hour television show featuring the Paralympics competition was shown in the US under an exclusive agreement with Visa and the Outdoor Life Network (OLN), which somewhat mitigated disappointment that no major US network televised the Games. Visa International, a sponsor of the Paralympic Games, also arranged a "Fun Day" for disabled children in Athens, during which Paralympic athletes met the children and demonstrated their skills in order to help the children see what's possible despite disability. The event was part of Visa's "Making a Difference" campaign. Visa also provided over 400 daylong passes for children from the three schools involved. Among the athletes involved in the Visa disabled children's "Fun Day" was Marlon Shirley from the USA.

Ryann Fann
Ryann Fann

In competition, Shirley raced to the gold in the men's 100m-T44, despite having the hiccups halfway through his sprint and re-injuring a hamstring. Ossur teammate Brian Frasure (USA) ran his season's best in 11.11 seconds to capture second place. Bringing home the bronze and setting a world record in the T43 category (double below-knee amputation or combined arm/leg amputation) was 18-year-old Oscar Pistorius (South Africa) of Team Ossur, who ran in 11.16 seconds.

"It was the greatest 100m ever--a race for the books," said Frasure, as quoted by Ossur. Frasure also anchored the US 4x400 relay team which not only won the gold medal but also set a new world record with a time of 3:27:00. Frasure is leaving the Paralympics in a blaze of glory, as he announced his retirement. Frasure's relay teammate, Ryan Fann, also captured a bronze medal in the T-44 400m.

Just five days after his 15th birthday, Rudy Garcia-Tolson (USA) of Team Ossur shattered a 12-year-old record in his qualifying heat in the 200m individual relay with a time of 2:42:20, shaving 3.62 seconds off the previous record. Garcia-Tolson, who is a bilateral above-knee amputee, then flew on to achieve the gold medal.

April Holmes, a below-knee amputee, set two world records and garnered a bronze medal--and about 30 family and friends from New Jersey came to see her do it. Actually, they missed seeing her win the bronze in the long jump--Holmes didn't tell them she was competing because she didn't think she would do well, according to a story by Paul Mezmarich for the US Olympic Committee (USOC). Although not a medal winner in the 100m and 200m races (due to a lack of competition in her classification, she had to compete against athletes with single-arm disabilities), Holmes blazed to new world records in her classification (T44--single below-knee amputation or able to walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs). She set a record of 13.13 seconds in the 100m sprint and 26.56 in the 200m.

April Holmes
April Holmes

Casey Tibbs (USA) made a spectacular Paralympic debut: he won silver in the most grueling event: the pentathlon, which includes long jump, shot put, 100m, discus, and 400m. He also added the open T44 400m to his day. "It was a long day--a long, long day," he said, as quoted by Meznarich.

These are only some of the highlights, which were too numerous to recount. For more information, visit; www.paralympic.organd

There were some downsides to the Games: over 600 doping tests were conducted, and seven violations were found. Both the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the European Paralympic Committee (EPC) said, "Doping disables everything related to Mind, Body, and Spirit'--the motto of the Paralympic Movement." They urge "everyone involved in the [Paralympic] Movement for sports for athletes with disabilities to play a role in the fight against doping."

Although a spectacular Opening Ceremony greeted the start of the Games, the Closing Ceremony was shortened as a symbol of sorrow for a tragic road accident claiming the lives of students traveling to see the Games.

However, the energy, glory, and inspiring display of the triumph of the human spirit far outshone any negatives. IPC President Phil Cravens likely summed it up best at the Closing Ceremony: "Thank you, athletes. Your performances were incredible. You have raised your sports to a new level... .  When you leave here, take the spirit of Athens with you, and inspire young athletes all over the world."