Winter Paralympics begin in shadow of war and without Russian athletes

The Paralympics’ profile continues to snowball with each Games that goes by but the next ten days in Beijing might just top the lot.

Exactly 180 days ago, the curtain came down on a Summer Games characterized by joy, human achievement and bold sporting ambitions – the fitting global showpiece after over a year of grueling coronavirus restrictions.

But this Games will be different, not so much the preserve of inspirational tales, celebration and resilience as an event catapulted further into the international spotlight owing to unsavory military headlines and Russian-ravaged controversy.

Yesterday, the International Paralympic Committee announced a dramatic 11th-hour U-turn after their initially inexplicable decision to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete at the Games – under a neutral flag and omitted from the medal table – following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

IPC chiefs were stunned at the strength of athletes and members’ responses – many threatening to boycott the Games – and as a result, declared all athletes from Russia and Belarus – 83 in total, including 12 Belarusians plus guides – will now be banned.

Logic eventually prevailed but the development has done little to diminish the number of global eyeballs that will pivot towards the Chinese capital over the next ten days, intensifying public interest after a story that’s truly ‘cut through’ and penetrated the masses.

The sporting drama gets underway on Saturday but first it’s today’s Opening Ceremony, with all the key lynchpins and protagonists set to descend on the iconic Bird’s Nest under the Friday night lights.

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Beijing 2022 represented a deeply troublesome Games well before last week’s events but now, global interest in Friday night’s showpiece will be leveraged even further when 20 brave Ukrainians, accompanied by guides, strut their stuff on the big stage.

And the inclusion of the now globally-pervasive yellow and blue flag – an unequivocal symbol of support, defiance and hope in the most trying of times at home – helps cap a Winter Paralympic Games that will welcome the largest number of stars in its history, with almost 600 athletes from more than 50 nations traveling to China this month.

Twenty-four of them will be British, ParalympicsGB’s second-biggest team since Lillehammer 1994, who are bidding to emulate the record seven-medal haul scooped in South Korea four years ago.

And British audiences will hardly be starved of their latest fix of Paralympic fever, with all the action broadcast live on Channel 4 by a trailblazing, world-first all-disabled team of talent.

Former basketball star Ade Adepitan, Tokyo triathlon champion Lauren Steadman and racing speedster ‘Billy Whizz’ Monger will spearhead the all-encompassing coverage, which will see over 80 hours of Paralympic sport broadcast across both the channel and its YouTube page.

It all kicks off at 11.30am today, with Channel 4 beaming the showpiece into the living rooms of the watching nation to kickstart a Games propelled into the British public’s collective consciousness.

And that – for whatever reason – can be no bad at all.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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