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Sir Peter Westmacott

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The Paralympics Return to Their Roots

Posted: 08/29/2012 1:26 pm

There are few sporting events more inspiring than the Paralympic Games. Over the two weeks of competition that follow tonight's opening ceremony, more than four thousand of the world's most amazing athletes will beat the odds that nature or accident has dealt them to participate in some 471 events at the very highest level. Their dignity, determination and courage are plain to see.

What is not as well-known, perhaps, is that Britain is where the Paralympic movement began. In parallel with the 1948 London Olympics, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a pioneering Jewish neurologist who sought refuge in England from Nazi Germany, created the Stoke Mandeville Games, named after the hospital near London where he practiced. The first participants were Guttmann's patients -- paralyzed British veterans of the Second World War.

Veterans -- and more recently active-duty personnel too -- have featured prominently among Paralympians ever since. In 2012, the UK will field several athletes who have served in the British Armed Forces; Team USA will include 20 current and former service members. Their participation reflects a concerted effort on both sides of the Atlantic to use sport as a means of rehabilitating wounded personnel, by focusing on achievement rather than impairment. Here in the United States, the U.S. Olympic Committee and Department of Defense have hosted the annual Warrior Games since 2010, in which some two hundred serving personnel and veterans compete in seven Paralympic sports. The joint U.S.-UK Task Force to Support Our Armed Forces Personnel, Veterans and Their Families, launched during President Obama's State visit to the UK in 2011, shares experiences between our two countries on supporting service personnel and their families.

This year, 20 British personnel, some of whom were wounded fighting alongside American colleagues in Afghanistan or Iraq, were invited to participate in the 2012 Warrior Games as the first ever international contingent. Their involvement is, of course, a tremendous honour for themselves and their country; but it also vividly illustrates the unparalleled closeness of Britain's two hundred-year military relationship with the United States on and off the battlefield. As well as a remarkable display of human resilience and athletic achievement, then, the London Paralympics are an occasion to reflect on that relationship and to celebrate the courageous men and women whose sacrifices give it strength.

From the beginning, the Paralympics have been about more than physical recovery -- they have also fostered growing social acceptance of disabled people. The extraordinary achievements of paralympians in the 64 years since the movement's inauguration have brought the outside world to acknowledge them not just as human beings deserving dignity but as remarkable individuals worthy of admiration.

The Paralympics have grown into the world's second-largest sporting event, surpassed now only by the Olympics themselves. London's Games will be the biggest yet. Well over two million tickets have been sold, breaking all previous records. This unprecedented interest is fitting testament to the recognition the Paralympic movement has brought to disabled people. Britain is proud to be the country where it all began.

 

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