Stage Set for Paralympic Games

Tuesday, March 2, 2010
The Canadian Press

Canada’s Paralympic team has set a lofty goal of winning enough gold medals to finish among the top three countries. (Nigel Armstrong/Canadian Press)

As the curtain is drawn on Vancouver’s Olympic Games, the stage is being set for Canada’s first Winter Paralympics.

The Paralympics, which feature athletes with physical disabilities, are smaller in size but just as competitive on the playing field as the Olympics.

Organizers hope the event has just as large an impact on Canada as the Games.

“More than anything, it’s the legacy that can be left in terms of promoting the movement to the rest of Canada and exposing our athletes to the rest of Canada,” said Blair McIntosh, chef de mission of the Canadian team.

Seeing Canada’s Olympic athletes grab a pocket full of gold has sent a surge of adrenalin through the Paralympians.

“They are pretty pumped,” said McIntosh. “They are really excited about the opportunity to compete on home soil.

“The awareness is out there more than it has been before. The opportunity to perform on home soil is an outstanding opportunity for them.”

The Paralympic team has set a lofty goal of winning enough gold medals to finish among the top three countries. The International Paralympic Committee ranks countries on their gold medal performance, said McIntosh.

At the 2006 Paralympics in Turin, Italy, Canada was ranked sixth after earning 13 medals, including five gold, three silver and five bronze.

The Russian Federation led the medals table with 13 gold and 33 total medals. Germany was next with eight of its 18 medals being gold.

Ukraine, France and the U.S. all had seven gold medals.

McIntosh is confident Canada can reach its top-three objective.

The alpine team finished on top of the IPC rankings last season. The wheelchair curling foursome won the world title last year in a test event in the facility where they will compete at the Paralympics.

“Our team had some incredible performances over the last two seasons,” said McIntosh. “We are hoping it will carry on through the Paralympics.”

The Paralympics will attract 1,350 athletes and team officials from 44 countries between March 12 and 21.

The alpine skiing, biathlon and cross-country skiing competitions will be held in Whistler, about 120 kilometres north of Vancouver.

Sledge hockey and wheelchair curling, sports where Canada is the defending champion, will be staged in Vancouver.

The opening ceremonies will be held at B.C. Place Stadium, the same facility where the Olympic opening and closing festivities were held. The closing will be staged in Whistler.

Canada will be represented by a team of 55 athletes and 55 support staff. The team will include 25 returning athletes, including Colette Bourgonje who will be competing in her sixth Winter Paralympics and ninth Games over all.

Cross-country skier Brian McKeever, who won three gold, a silver and a bronze in Turin, will compete in his third Games.

The visually impaired McKeever, from Canmore, Alta., made history when he became the first winter athlete to be named to both a Paralympic and Olympic team. He was denied a chance to race in the 50-kilometre event at the Olympics when the coaching staff elected to use four faster skiers in the race.

McIntosh said not racing doesn’t tarnish McKeever’s accomplishment.

“It’s a coaching decision,” he said. “From a Paralympic team standpoint, we are just so proud with what Brian has accomplished as an athlete. He is still a member of that [Olympic] team.”

Other athletes to watch include alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft, who won a gold and silver in Turin; skier Christopher Williamson, who had a silver and a bronze; and Bourgonje, who had a pair of silvers in cross-country.

Paralympic Team Benefits From Own the Podium

The Paralympic team has received money from Own the Podium, the $117-million program established to help Canada win more medals than any other country at the Olympics Games.

Over the last quadrennial, the Paralympic winter sports have received around $10.1 million for their national team programs and about $3.6 million from OTP. They also have benefited from the Top Secret Program, which helps design new technology, and the cash that has gone to Canadian Sport Centres.

One fear of any Paralympics is the event will be lost in the shadow of the bright lights of the Olympics. There also is concern fans, exhausted after the emotional roller-coaster of the Games, will tune out the Paralympics.

McIntosh said the Vancouver Olympic Games Organizing Committee, known locally as VANOC, has treated the Paralympics on an equal footing with the Olympics.

“VANOC had done such an amazing job promoting both throughout the last seven years,” he said. “It’s not as if on Sunday the curtain is going to be drawn.

“All the hype that is happening around the Olympics will still be happening. There will be a slight transition but the excitement of the Olympics will carry right on through.”

The Paralympics will also receive 50 hours of television coverage, split between English and French.

The thrill of competing on home soil can sometimes be balanced by the pressure to meet expectations. McIntosh said the Paralympians to whom he has talked are looking forward to the challenge.

“When we are talking to the athletes they have embraced it,” he said. “They are not looking at it as a pressure so much as an opportunity.

“They are looking at it as a chance to showcase themselves and create a whole new awareness of the Paralympic movement. It’s not so much pressure, but a real opportunity.”

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