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Paralympic skills on show in St Paul’s

31 August 2012

by Rachel Boulding


Sportswomen: above: the Great Britain wheelchair-basketball players (left to right) Judith Hamer, Helen Turner, Sarah Grady, and Louise Sugden at a photocall in St Paul's

Sportswomen: above: the Great Britain wheelchair-basketball players (left to right) Judith Hamer, Helen Turner, Sarah Grady, and Louise Sugden at a ...

THE wheelchair basketball proved less noisy and disruptive than might have been expected: the three-a-side match, contested under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, impressed the congregation in its skill and grace, and proved to be a highlight of the first-ever Paralympic service on Sunday ( News, 17 August).

Organised in conjunction with the British Paralympic Association and the English Federation of Disability Sport, "Courage and Faith: The opening service for the London 2012 Paralympic Games", was not part of the official programme, but was billed as an "act of worship", "part of the Christian response" to the Games. Lord Coe was unable to attend, and most of the current Paralympic athletes were too immersed in training to appear.

The Chapter and the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, received the Lord Mayor, before a short procession of Paralympic medallists took their places under the dome. They were greeted warmly by the Canon in Residence, the Revd Mark Oakley, who led prayers of thanksgiving, asking for God's blessing on the Games, and ending with the Lord's Prayer.

Later intercessions were led by representatives from other faiths, but it was a distinctively Christian service, with Bible readings (Micah 4 and Matthew 5, though not 1 Corinthians 9) and hymns (among them, "Fight the good fight" and "For the healing of the nations").

The wheelchair athlete Anne Wufula-Strike contributed to a sense of living faith, giving her personal testimony to sport as a means of witness: "God sees me as perfect. . . He uses me and has a purpose for me." She went on to describe how sport could also educate and empower people, especially in the developing world, to fight the stigmatisation of disability and "to be included in their communities".

In this, she echoed the address by Baroness Grey-Thompson, the Paralympic gold medallist, who described how the Games could "challenge the accepted view of what disabled people can do. . . Paralym-pic sport has the power to change the world."

Speaking to me before the service, the Baroness admitted that she found it "challenging to be part of a religious service", but that she was glad to be part of the celebration. She had not been surprised at the success of the London Olympics, especially because of all the hard work and preparation that had gone into their organisation: her main emotion was one of relief. She also described how she had been hugged in sheer delight by a stranger on an Underground train, as if she had contributed directly to the British medal successes. "Everyone wants something to celebrate," she said.

Another highlight was the Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf and Hearing Children, fresh from performing at the Olympic opening ceremony. Their song "Respect" summed up much of the service: "Raise your expectations, accept no limitations. . . Keep your integrity - respect! It's what the world needs now."

Bishop Chartres led the congregation in applause "for all Paralympians" at the end. They departed down ramps and past live displays of Paralympic sports from archery to wheelchair tennis.


FIFTY disabled performers, including non-competing Paralympians and rehabilitating soldiers, were due to appear in an acrobatic spectacular above the stadium floor in the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, on Wednesday, writes Madeleine Davies.

Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, the ceremony, "Enlightenment", was designed as a celebration of the history of science and discovery in Britain.

At Stoke Mandeville Stadium, the birthplace of the Paralympic movement, the Aylesbury Churches Network hosted an opening-night community festival, featuring huge inflatable games, and opportunities to try Paralympic sports.

The UK Director of the charity More Than Gold, Jon Burns, said that it was "a shining example of the way we are seeing churches working together to demonstrate the reality of what they believe to the communities they are part of".

Among the British competitors, Anna Sharkey, a member of the goalball team, has spoken to the charity Through the Roof about her Christian faith: "I think the difference it makes is that you have no fear. . . I know my God, my Father in heaven, loves me, whatever I do."

The Paralympic Flame travelled from Stoke Mandeville to the Olympic Park during a 24-hour relay conducted by "inspirational people from across the UK". On Saturday, the bells of Bath Abbey rang out to celebrate Bath and North East Somerset Council's Paralympic Flame Celebration.

The Church of England's Liturgical Commission has released a new prayer for the Games which speaks of a vision of the world "united in mutual respect and tolerance".

The chairman of London 2012, Lord Coe, paid tribute to Ludwig Guttmann, the father of the Paralympic Games, on Wednesday: "It is simply not possible to stand here without feeling a mountainous debt of gratitude for one of the world's great visionaries."

Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish doctor who fled Nazi Germany just before the Second World War, and established the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville, organised the International Wheelchair Games to coincide with the London Olympics in 1948. Twelve years later, the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome.

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