Paralympic torch arrives in Vancouver

The Paralympic torch relay lit up a small pocket of Vancouver on Wednesday as it made its first stop in the host city, where fresh memories of the Winter Olympics are fuelling excitement for their sequel.

The Paralympic torch relay lit up a small pocket of Vancouver on Wednesday as it made its first stop in the host city, where fresh memories of the Winter Olympics are fuelling excitement for their sequel.

It was less than two weeks ago that the Olympic flame was extinguished and locals are eager for another international sporting event that will see hundreds of athletes with disabilities competing on the slopes of Whistler and on rinks in Vancouver.

Craig McCord, a Paralympic swimming coach who carried the torch during a small relay through a Vancouver park Wednesday, said he sees the pair of events as one and the same.

"Somebody said to me earlier, 'It's one Games, two events,"' recalled McCord, wearing his blue torchbearer uniform and special Paralympic red mittens before his leg of the relay.

"From what we saw during the Olympics, we're a sport-crazy nation. And I think what you're going to see is people becoming more and more aware of Paralympic sport."

The relay ends on Friday when the flame ignites a cauldron in B.C. Place stadium during the opening ceremonies.

Like the Paralympics themselves, the relay is a considerably smaller affair than the cross-Canada trek that preceded the Olympics and it includes a few key differences.

For one, the flame cannot trace its roots back to Greece. Instead, it is lit anew by local aboriginals at every community it visits.

Smaller relays

And rather than making its way through city streets lined with people, it's a collection of smaller relays looping around areas such as parks, giving spectators a chance to see the flame pass by again and again before it lights a community cauldron.

If the celebrations and events along the Olympic torch relay were like massive rock concerts, sometimes with tens of thousands of people packed in front of a large stage, the Paralympic relay events feel more like community gatherings such as pancake breakfasts or block parties.

"I think this type of setup makes it more intimate," said McCord.

Friday's opening ceremonies are nearly sold out, and there aren't any tickets left for the closing ceremonies in Whistler on March 21.

All of Canada's sledge hockey games are also full, and the gold medal events for sledge hockey and wheelchair curling are sold out.

"I'm so glad that Vancouver is getting involved, because it is really important," said Jill Mitchell, a 28-year-old from Vancouver who came out to see her friend carry the Paralympic torch.

"I've got some family who bought tickets to Paralympic events, they're actually more excited about the Paralympics than the Olympics. It's less corporate and it feels so much more community than the Olympics."

More attention

Torchbearer Herb Torrence, who volunteers with the Cerebral Palsy Sports Association of B.C., said it appears the Paralympics are receiving more attention in 2010 than they have in the past.

Torrence said that will only help raise the profile of the Paralympics and the athletes.

"There's a little more attention, there's more TV, more coverage," said Torrence.

"One of our problems when we went away to Sydney [in 2000] and to Athens [in 2004] was the amount of coverage. There wasn't a lot compared to the Olympics. I'm hoping that it will make people more aware of the disabled community."

The Paralymics will see about 600 athletes compete in five sports. Alpine skiing, biathlon and cross-country skiing will be held in Whistler, while wheelchair curling and sledge hockey will be in Vancouver.

The Canadian consortium with broadcast rights to the Olympics and Paralympics is promising a record exposure for the Paralympics, with 57 hours of television coverage.

Still, Torrence said he's disappointed the opening ceremonies won't be carried live, but rather will be shown on TV on Saturday afternoon.

"To me, it should be live, just like the Olympics' [opening ceremonies] were," he said.