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Disabled athletes head to Turin

There will be fewer medals up for grabs at the Turin Paralympics than in previous years Keystone

Switzerland's disabled athletes will be hoping to emulate the success of the Swiss Olympic team at the Turin Winter Paralympics that start on Friday.

The delegation of 20 men and women is looking to bring home seven medals in alpine and Nordic skiing as well as curling.

The Swiss economics minister, Joseph Deiss, will be cheering them on at the opening ceremony.

“These athletes help raise awareness about disabilities,” he said. “They are ambassadors for equality and open doors for all people suffering from disabilities.”

Four years ago in Salt Lake City, the Swiss team garnered six gold medals, four silver and two bronze, pushing them into seventh place in the country ranking. This time round, they will probably have to make do with less.

In Italy, the competitions will take place on the same sites as the recent Olympics. Ten athletes will take part in the alpine events, five in the Nordic races along with a curling team.

The goal will be bring home seven medals: one in curling, two in the Nordic events and four in skiing according to the head of the Swiss delegation, Hugo Wölfli.

Only two women

Only two women, Chiara Devittori in cross-country skiing and Madeleine Wildi in curling, will represent Switzerland.

On the men’s side, Ruedi Weber in biathlon, Hans-Jörg Arnold in giant slalom and Hans Burn in the downhill race will try to hold on to the titles they won four years ago.

Good results are also expected in the alpine events from Michael Brüngger, Christoph Kurz and Thomas Pfyl. Bruno Huber is a medal chance in Nordic skiing.

One of the reasons the Swiss don’t expect to do as well as they did in Utah is a major rule change.

“In Turin, there will be only about half the number of medals given out in Salt Lake City,” Wölfli told swissinfo.

The number of competitor categories has been cut down to three in alpine skiing: sitting, standing and visually impaired. There will only be 24 titles up for grabs, instead of 53.

Less gold

In Nordic skiing, the number of gold medals has been cut from 37 to 32.

The organisers have also tried to make the events more interesting by simplifying the rules governing the events, but still guaranteeing equal chances for all athletes whatever the degree or type of their disability.

This means that competitors taking part in a race will see there time modified depending on their disability, particularly in the alpine events.

“This means that the fastest competitor won’t necessarily win the race,” added Wölfli. “Even if this seems a little difficult to understand, Switzerland has given its support to these changes because it gives more value to each medal.”

The rule changes will also have another advantage: with fewer events, there should be less trouble finding competitors to actually take part.

Though they may be disabled, the paralympians will be treated just like their able-bodied counterparts. The organisers have already announced 280 anti-doping tests will be carried out.

swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux

The Paralympics were first suggested in 1948 by a doctor, Ludwig Guttman, the German founder of the Stoke Mandville Games in Britain.

It was in 1960 that the first summer Paralympics were held in Rome.

The first winter competitions took place in Sweden in 1967.

Switzerland was the first country to set up a national paralympic committee in 1989.

The Turin Paralympics are taking place from March 10 to March 19.
The competitions are spread over four sites: Turin (ice sledge hockey), Sestrières (alpine skiing), Pinerolo (curling) and Pragelato (nordic skiing).
Around 500 athletes from 39 countries are taking part.
The Swiss delegation includes 20 athletes.
Four years ago, Switzerland finished seventh among the nations taking part, with six gold medals, four silver and two bronze.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR