Paralympic Games spectators

Even as the most famous Paralympian of them all, Oscar Pistorius, stands trial for murder in South Africa.

And even as tensions rise between an aggressive Russia and a defiant Ukraine in the Crimea,  the world's athletes are once again confidently gathering in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana and on the strangely balmy coast of the Black Sea. 

The Olympics may be over but Sochi 2014 is far from done.

The 11th Paralympic Winter Games are about to begin. Against a volatile backdrop they are expected to become a testament to the power of sport and the ability of ordinary people to rise above those things which threaten to conquer the human spirit.

In the case of the Paralympics, the necessity to forge ahead may be even greater than at the Olympics. These athletes are truly extraordinary in that they engage in sport for the purest of reasons: to continue the pursuit of what is instinctual to all of us. 

The Paralympians are in Russia having already succeeded in some of life's most difficult struggles. They have arrived in Sochi  in order to compete and to continue the discovery of human potential.

Potential for enlightenment

While it's easier and more comfortable to stage these multi-sport gatherings in the safety and certainty of our own backyards, the potential for enlightenment may be greater in a place like Russia, which has a less than laudable track record in accommodating its large disabled population. 

Sports Hall of Fame 20100503

Chantal Petitclerc, winner of five gold medals at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, says the Sochi Games can be "a vehicle for social change." (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

There was a startling awakening to Paralympic sport at the 2010 Games in Vancouver/Whistler that was even more pronounced at the summer edition in London less than two years ago.And contrary to those who suggest that the Paralympics be boycotted for political reasons, it seems obvious that, if the athletes are safe and secure, then the Games must stay the course as a matter of principle, not to mention faith.

Chantal Peticlerc won 21 medals, including 14 gold, at the five Paralympic Games she competed in as a wheelchair racer. She overcame the complete loss of her lower body mobility to become a champion, a Lou Marsh Trophy winner as Canada's athlete of the year, an Officer of the Order of Canada and, most recently, at 44, a first-time mother to son Elliot. Peticlerc contends that Russia is the kind of place where the Paralympics can have the greatest impact, "like what we saw in Beijing." 

"Being a person with a disability in Russia is still a big challenge and these Games will really help to open minds and change perspective," she said. "This is a clear example of when sport is more than sport, but instead becomes a vehicle for social change."

Growing global following

Sochi 2014 will mark the largest Paralympic Winter Games in history. It's expected that nearly 700 athletes from 45 countries will compete in six disciplines and 64 medal events over the course of ten days. There is little doubt that new ground will be broken in Russia and the athletes, by their very presence on Sochi's fields of play, will have a dramatic influence on a substantial international audience.

''A great athlete is now known as a great athlete.'- Paul Rosen, 2006 Paralympic gold medallist

"Having a nation like Russia host, which is known for its great 'able-bodied' athletes, will now open the world's eyes to their great athletes with disabilities," said Paul Rosen, a Canadian sledge hockey goaltender who won gold at the 2006 Torino Games. "I think having the Games in Russia will not only be great for the Russians but for the entire world. Equality has finally come. A great athlete is now known as a great athlete."

The Paralympic movement has evolved to the point where Canadians are no longer among the few pioneers who have planted the seeds of universal sport.  There is now an immense global following.

But that doesn't mean cultivating new and potentially rich territory can come to an end just yet.

"It's great to say that we live in a country where a Paralympic medal gets the same respect and admiration as an Olympic one," Petitclerc pointed out. "But actions speak louder than words and seeing Paralympians in action will make Russia realize that they need to make room for people with disability not only in high performance
sport but also in education and the working world."

In this case, the Paralympics have the potential to rise above a well-worn sports cliche. Yes, there are impediments which make it somewhat uncomfortable to gather in Sochi, Russia at this very moment in history.

But if you believe that sport has the power to make a difference in the world then these Games definitely must go on.