LONDON—Across the Atlantic Ocean in Great Britain, the 2012 Paralympic Games began today after an impressive opening ceremony last night. World-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking inaugurated the event with words of hope and human capability, before the Olympic Stadium was captivated by dancers, music and spectacle.
Away from all the flashing lights and rigorous choreography of the opening ceremony, more than 4,000 athletes prepared backstage to parade around the stadium.
Eventually it was their turn. With 164 nations competing in the Games, it was a long procession but for all of the athletes this was a moment to cherish and remember. Between the delegations from New Zealand and Niger, came the two athletes from Nicaragua—flag-bearer Gabriel Cuadra and fellow runner Vanessa Benavidez.
As the procession and the entertainment came to an end, a cauldron was lit by Britain’s first Paralympic gold medallist, Margaret Maughan, to signal the beginning of the fourteenth Paralympic Games.
The idea for the games started in the humble settings of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital as the brainchild of Doctor Ludwig Guttmann, who sought to create sports for those left disabled after the Second World War. In 1948 he organised the International Wheelchair Games to coincide with the Olympic Games that year, which were also held in London.
Twelve years later, the first Paralympic Games began in Rome as 400 athletes competed from 23 countries. Every four years since then it has grown.
‘Next great advance for the movement’
This year’s Paralympic Games are set to be the biggest and best. More athletes will compete than ever before; 250 more than in the previous Games held in Beijing four years ago. But it is the meaning of the Games that is most important.
One of the organizers, Lord Sebastian Coe, said that these Games will mark “the next great advance” in the movement to recognize and integrate the disabled further into society. It is also to applaud their achievements and capabilities, instead of their disabilities.”
The Games, he added, is “a landmark for mankind towards light, towards great capability. For mankind everywhere.”
For Nicaragua, this will be just the second time that the country has competed in the Paralympic Games. Back in 2004, there was only one Nicaraguan athlete in Athens, cyclist Mario Madriz. But this year there are two.
Gabriel Cuadra, 19, will be competing in three events: the 200m, 400m and the 800m. Last November, the runner came in the top four in his disciplines at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico to earn a place at the Paralympics.
Now Cuadra, who was born with cerebral palsy, is confident of more success.
“My biggest dream is an Olympic medal,” he said in an interview with El Nuevo Diario. If his personal bests are anything to go by, then the Nicaraguan student of graphics design should stand a good chance of success. He has recorded times of 27 seconds in the 200m, one minute in the 400m and 2.22 minutes at the 800m. But the young man isn’t impatient.
“These are my first, but not my last Paralympics. If I follow the same path, I will get something good not only for me but for Nicaragua,” he said.
The story of Cuadra’s rise to possible Paralympic glory is special. He only began running four years ago after watching his sister warm-up at an athletics club. As she sprinted off, so did he. This caught the eye of running coach Dionisio Zeledón, who saw talent and invited Cuadra back for more training.
Four years later, Zeledón is still Cuadra’s coach and says he has high hopes for the young athlete in the international Games.
“Cuadra is one of the best athletes we have in the country. He is very disciplined in his training and that is reflected in his qualification to the Games,” he said.
Nicaragua’s other competitor is Vanessa Benavidez who will be running in the 100m and 200m. Benavidez, also 19, was born blind, but that has never stopped her. After years of hard work, she was rewarded with an invitation to Games.
Though she may dream of medal success, for Benavidez just getting to the Games is a great personal achievement.
“This is an important achievement, after so much effort, training, going to school, and then coming home to train,” she said. “It also helps me develop as a person to relate to others who also have vision problems or other disabilities.”
But the runner has no reason to be modest. She was a silver medallist at the Parapan Youth Games in 2009 and has picked up numerous medals in national competitions. Her personal best for the 200m was recorded at 32 seconds, and half that for the 100m.
Like Cuadra, this will not be Benavidez’s only appearance at the Paralympic Games. The young runner has ideas about how she can prolong her love for sports.
“My dream is to finish high school and go to study physiotherapy,” she said. “Somehow I feel it is related to sport, because it helps athletes.”
After the fantastic effort by the Nicaraguan Olympians last month and the recognition of hometown competitors such as Osmar Bravo, Nicaragua’s two young Paralympians need all the support they can get. Not only for themselves, but for all Nicaraguans with disabilities.
A survey by the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC) found that 12.5% of Nicaraguan’s suffer from some form of disability. A recent article by the Nicaragua Dispatch explored the expanding opportunities for those with disabilities in Nicaragua, but also highlighted that more needs to be done. Gabriel Cuadra is right behind this. He said, “You need to develop a policy level. We have to prepare, you have to train coaches and athletes too, because there is not much support.”
Cuadra will begin his battle for a medal on Sept. 4 in the 400m, and then compete again on Sept. 6 in both the 200m and 800m. All three of these races are medal events. Benavidez, meanwhile, will compete in the 200m on Sept. 1 and the 100m on Sept. 4.
So as the cauldron burns bright and the Games get underway today, the Nicaraguans will be making themselves at home in the Paralympic Village and brimming with excitement to get out onto the track. I, along with other international sporting fans, will be strapped to the screen watching as many events as possible and cheering on those whom Lord Coe describes as people “refusing to take no for an answer.”
David Hutt is a freelance writer from London, UK, who will be on the trail of Latin America during the next year and will be working as a tour guide in León, Nicaragua. Follow his travels and misadventures on his blog, and follow him on twitter @davidhutt1990