The Paralympic difference 

Understanding what drives Paralympians is easy because it’s the same things that drive Olympians — the pursuit of personal excellence, a competitive spirit, national pride, a willingness to sacrifice, and the desire to be the best.

Understanding the Paralympics, however, is a little more challenging. To view them as an Olympics for people with disabilities is an oversimplification, because no two disabilities are exactly the same and athletes are measured by achieving their personal best rather than the best performance of the day.

It’s a complex system of classifications and percentages, and one that’s not without controversy.

Don’t let the complexity fool you into thinking that it’s easy to win medals at the Paralympics — while many Paralympic athletes may have gotten into sports as part of their rehabilitation process, every athlete that makes it to the Games is as well-trained physically and mentally as an Olympic athlete.

The end goal is to create a level playing field for people with a variety of disabilities so that any athlete at the height of their personal ability has a chance to win.

Through Own The Podium 2010, Canada’s goal is to place first among nations in the Olympics for total medals and in the top-three nations in the Paralympics for gold medals — the measure used by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) when ranking nations.

With three Canadian alpine skiers winning overall IPC World Cup globes this season, one Nordic skier leading his series, and most of the members of the champion national sledge hockey and wheelchair curling teams returning for 2010, a top-three result might seem easy. However, with three competitive categories in every alpine, cross-country and biathlon event — standing, sitting and visually impaired — Canada needs to have athletes that can contend in every single category from March 12-21, 2010.

“We’re confident, but I wouldn’t say (a top-three) is a given,” said Rob Needham, senior manager of high performance for the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “We knew that the top-three would be a challenge, we’ve been sixth in the past two Paralympics in Torino and Salt Lake City, and those were our best ever results. There are a few countries we need to pass or climb over to achieve a top-three and they’re not going to make it easy.”

In Torino 2006, Canadian Paralympians won 13 medals, including five gold medals, to place sixth overall on the medal tally, down two medals from a total of 15 in Salt Lake City in 2002 and 15 in Nagano in 1998. To place in the top-three for gold medals, Canada will need to earn at least 10 gold medals in 2010 or double the 2006 tally.

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