Sport & Culture

China Strikes Gold at Paralympics

While gold medals are impressive, changing attitudes towards the disabled in China maybe the real story.

The United States may have topped the standings at the 2012 Olympic Games but China ended on top at the Paralympics with a record total of 95 gold medals, even beating its 2008 Beijing haul of 89 golds.

Russia was second but a massive 59 medals behind. It is a far cry from China's first Paralympics appearance in 1984 when it picked up just two titles.

Wang Xinxian, Chef de Mission of the Chinese Paralympic delegation, paid tribute to the athletes and the help given to them by the government.

 "In the past five years, the Chinese government helped about 10 million disabled lead a better life, about two thirds of the disabled get stable jobs," Wang told Xinhua."Second, the scientific and hard training made the Chinese para-athletes stronger and most of them were very confident in top-level competitions," said Wang.

Ominously for the other countries, China sent 134 athletes to the Paralympics for the first time, but these debutants took 40% of the country's gold medals. Also ominous is that in 2008, there were 332 Chinese athletes competing. In 2012, that number fell to 282 but there were more golds. 

"There has been a huge change in the situation for disabled people in China," Zhao Qian, an official with China's London Paralympics delegation told AFP. "More disabled people now have the confidence to achieve their goals, so we encourage them to practice sports.

The BBC investigated claims that there had been improvements and a recent report suggested that much had changed thanks to the 2008 games.

“The Beijing Paralympics four years ago played a huge part in changing attitudes in China,” reported the BBC. “No longer were the disabled seen as charity cases who you should feel sorry for but instead they were seen as winners who should be celebrated.”

The broadcaster did point out however that the improvements were uneven and there was still a long way to go.

That caveat reflects the concerns of some that many of the nation’s 83 million disabled people are being left behind as the country continues to develop at a rapid rate.

John Artman, a CRI correspondent based in Beijing, said: “There really isn’t very much support. It wasn’t until the Olympics were coming up that Beijing authorities said, ‘Hey we need wheelchair access’… even now, animals are not allowed on buses or on subways, so if you are blind then you can’t use a seeing-eye dog, which isn’t a big deal because most blind people here in China don’t have seeing-eye dogs.”

John Giszczak from Save the Children China, is a little more optimistic. “Within the last few years, we've seen an explosion in the number of organizations providing services for people with disabilities, as well as increasing number of organizations and self-help groups founded by people with disabilities to help improve their situation and bring about better services. I think all those trends are really exciting.”

Whatever the debate, there is no denying that when it comes to the Paralympics, China is out on its own and then some. The feats of the athletes over the past two weeks have been very impressive and the standard has been set for others, most notably the United States, to follow.