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Athletes rise to Paralympic challenge

The Swiss Paralympic team are going for gold in Athens

(Keystone)

Three weeks after the Olympic flame went out on the Athens Games, a second team of Swiss athletes has travelled to the Greek capital in search of medals.

They have joined 4,000 competitors from 130 countries at the 12th Paralympic Games, which opened on Friday.

The Swiss, who have taken 40 athletes to Athens, say they have high hopes of returning with more medals than their able-bodied colleagues, who only managed five, including one gold.

“According to our best estimates, we are capable of winning 15 medals,” said Hugo Wölfli, president of the Swiss Paralympic Committee and head of the Swiss delegation in Athens.

The Swiss paralympic team won 20 medals in Atlanta in 1996 (nine gold, six silver and five bronze), and ten at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 (four gold, two silver and four bronze).

Medal hopes

With wheelchair athlete Ursina Greuter now retired, and standing athlete Lukas Christen out injured, the Swiss delegation will be looking to Heinz Frei and Franz Nietlispach to bring home the bacon.

The wheelchair and handbike athletes have already between them won Paralympic gold 26 times over various distances.

They will once again be expected to lead by example in a team featuring 19 Paralympic debutants.

Despite increasingly tough opposition, the Swiss are expected to shine in wheelchair and standing athletics, in cycling and swimming.

The Games, which run for 12 days, feature 556 events in 19 sporting disciplines.

Doping

Like their Olympic colleagues, the organisers of the Paralympics will be on the lookout for drug cheats.

Doping, while nowhere near as common as among the able-bodied – 20 athletes tested positive in Athens – is still a factor in disabled sport.

Last month the visually impaired Swiss athlete Francisco Taboada was handed a two-year suspension from all competition after testing positive for the steroid nandrolone at the European Championships in Italy.

“This menace is also a reality for us,” confirmed Wölfli. “But we are doing everything in our power to fight it. A Swiss athlete was recently found guilty of doping. Needless to say, he won’t be going to Athens.”

Around 30 random tests have already been carried out on the Swiss team, and all have come back negative.

Top-class facilities

As was the case in Sydney, the competitions will take place for the most part in the same arenas used for last month’s Olympics.

But this time around, training areas have been specially adapted for disabled athletes.

“Athens has made a tremendous effort,” said Wölfli. “We will be staying in the same village as the able-bodied athletes and training in the same areas.

“What’s more, 60 per cent of the competition sites have wheelchair access.”

Wölfli is also cheered by the proximity of Greece to Switzerland: the SFr270,000 ($212,000) budget for the Swiss team is half that of Sydney in 2004.

The Swiss team receives three-quarters of its funding from the Swiss Olympic Association and a quarter from the Swiss Paralympic Committee.

swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux

Key facts

The 12th Paralympic Games run from September 17-28.
4,000 athletes from 130 countries are taking part.
40 Swiss athletes (13 women and 27 men) and two guides for the visually impaired will be in Greece.
2,000 officials and 15,000 volunteers will be monitoring proceedings.

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In brief

The history of the Paralympic Games dates back to 1948, when they were conceived by a German, Ludwig Guttman.

The first Games took place in Rome in 1960, with 400 athletes from 23 countries competing.

The first Winter Paralympics took place in Sweden in 1967.

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