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Paralympics open in Sydney

Australian athlete, Louise Sauvage, lights the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 11th Paralympic Summer Games in Sydney Keystone

The 11th Paralymics have been officially declared open in Sydney on Wednesday with Switzerland 51-strong contingent getting ready to compete in six different events. Medal hopes are resting on the shoulders of stars like paraplegic Franz Nietlispach.

With 15 members, the wheelchair athlete team is the largest in the Swiss squad. Franz Nietlispach, at 42, is one of their most senior stars, with an international career going back to 1973.

Nietlispach has 13 Paralympic gold medals and 19 world championship titles to his name.

Switzerland’s medal tally reached its all time high during the 1984 games, when the squad won 50 medals – 13 gold, nine silver and 28 bronze. This dropped to 45 in 1988, 35 in 1992 and 21 in 1996.

Christian Egli, who is in charge of the squad, said Switzerland was in some ways a victim of the Paralympics’ success, as more and more countries sent teams and increased competition. He added that he hoped the Swiss would bring home at least 16 medals from Sydney.

As well as Nietlispach, all of Switzerland’s medal winners from the 1996 Atlanta games will be in Sydney. Those tipped for success are: Lukas Christen, Heinz Frei, Ursina Greuter and Urs Kolly.

Edith Hunkeler, the 1998 world championship silver medal winner, has been forced to pull out, after an accident at the Berlin marathon.

The first international sporting event for disabled athletes took place in 1951. The “Stoke Mandeville Games”, named after a British hospital treating Second World War veterans, were only open to wheelchair athletes, with 130 participants from just two countries.

But the field was later extended to allow athletes with a variety of disabilities to test their skills against each other. The first Paralympics proper were held in Rome in 1960, with 400 athletes representing 23 countries.

The event has continued to grow, and Sydney is hosting 4,000 athletes from 125 countries, competing in 18 different disciplines, from archery to table tennis.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR