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27 Aug 2012 06:18
South Africa's Paralympic medallist Natalie du Toit. (Gallo)
Team South Africa jetted out of the country last Tuesday, with the team of 62 hoping to outdo their run at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The 2008 contingent of 66 managed to bag 30 medals, 21 of which were gold, and land sixth in the overall standings.
South Africa's most acclaimed amputee swimmer Natalie du Toit's career will come to an end two days before the end of the London 2012 Paralympics.
"This is it, this is not only my last Paralympics but my last competition," Du Toit told Road to London on Sunday, three days before the opening ceremony.
"I've achieved everything I wanted and the last few years have just been an incredible strain on me psychologically ... I'm not at liberty to go into the details right now but it hasn't been at all easy.
So I've pretty much been staying in Italy for the last eight months or so, just popping back over to South Africa for nationals et cetera."
Both an Olympian and Paralympian in 2008, Du Toit on this occasion only qualified for the Paralympics after being pipped by Jessica Roux at world open water championships in Setubal in Portugal earlier this year.
Roux was unable to complete the open water event at the Olympics.
Du Toit will be the country's busiest swimmer in the Aquatics Centre come this week.
"I've got a full house of seven events these Games and I'll be swimming for seven of the 10 days," she said.
The 28-year-old will be swimming the 50m freestyle, 100m butterfly, freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, the 200m individual medley and the 400m freestyle.
She's got a tough act to follow this time around, having won five gold medals in both Athens and Beijing.
"I guess that's the benchmark I've set myself," she said.
The three events that, all being well, should be almost guaranteed to bring her golds are the 100m butterfly, 400m freestyle and the 200m individual medley, with the rest being less predictable.
The Paralympic Games begin in London on Wednesday, with China tipped to repeat their gold rush of four years ago but hosts Britain aiming to push them hard and give home fans more reasons to cheer.
Just over two weeks after the Olympics closing ceremony, organisers have transformed sports venues and accommodation in readiness for the arrival of about 4 200 athletes with a disability and the 11-day finale to a summer of sport.
Queen Elizabeth II is due to open the Games on Wednesday evening, with the Paralympic cauldron lit using flames kindled on Britain's four highest peaks and 24 hours after a torch relay starting at the spiritual home of the movement.
It was in Stoke Mandeville, south England, in 1948 that a German Jewish medical doctor organised sports events for World War II veterans with spinal injuries, 12 years before the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960.
The sporting action begins on Thursday, with shooting at the imposing 18th century Royal Artillery Barracks set to provide the first gold of the Games in the women's 10m standing air rifle.
Medals are also up for grabs in the velodrome, with the finals of the men and women's individual pursuit, in four weight categories in judo at the ExCel Arena and at the Aquatics Centre, where 15 swimming finals are to be held.
The Games' showpiece athletics programme gets under way on Friday, with the highlight Oscar Pistorius, who is seeking to defend his T44 100m, 200m and 400m titles from Beijing.
Pistorius, dubbed the "Blade Runner" because he runs on carbon fibre blades, made history earlier this month by becoming the first double-amputee to compete in the Olympics, when he ran in the 400m heats and 4x400m relay final.
The 25-year-old is likely to face tough opposition in the blue riband sprint, though, from US athlete Jerome Singleton, the current world champion, as well as Britain's Jonnie Peacock, who lowered the world record to 10.85 seconds in June.
China have been tipped to be the team to beat, after its Paralympic team swept all aside in Beijing four years ago, with 89 golds and 211 medals in all, more than double that of its nearest rival Britain on both counts.
But its 332 athletes four years ago – the largest ever Chinese Paralympic delegation – has been cut to 282 and almost half are debutants.
The vice-president of the China Disabled Persons' Federation, Jia Yong, admitted that competition away from home was tougher due to the demands of qualification but said he hoped the team would still be among the top three.
The president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), Philip Craven, said China's progress – and increased competition – was positive for the development of the four-yearly event.
"In Beijing, China topped the medal table.
"It's got to make for good news, for people coming to watch their heroes compete."
This year's Paralympics are nearly sold-out, with most of the 2.5-million tickets gone – a record – with organisers attributing that to British interest in disabled sport as well as a successful Olympics for the hosts.
Sponsorship and planned TV coverage have increased, while the International Paralympic Committee said that a record 1 513 women – more than double the number who took part in Barcelona a decade ago and up from 1 383 in Beijing – will compete this year.
A number of countries are also set to send athletes for the first time, including North Korea, although critics say poorer nations are at a disadvantage in the Paralympics to those that can afford increasingly high-tech gear. – AFP
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