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A divide between Olympians and Paralympians is the way forward

WHILE Scotland's interest in Olympic football this year will be marginal due to the Scottish FA's refusal to become involved, the same can't be said for the Paralympics.

Scotland has several members in the GB cerebral palsy football squad.

Indeed, obscured behind wall-to-wall hype over Britain's Olympic prospects, Scotland seems certain to make a significant impact on the overall GB Paralympic squad – perhaps as high as 10%, and significantly higher than that in the 12-strong CP football squad.

Scotland finished fifth in the last European championships, and sixth at the world championships in Holland last year behind five full-time squads (Iran, Brazil, Holland, Ukraine, and Russia). Behind Scotland were England, Ireland, USA, and Spain. Several of that Scottish team are now in the GB Paralympic squad.

Gordon McCormack, chairman of Scottish Disability Sport, is coy about numbers, but Scotland hopes to match the four CP players who went to the Beijing Paralympics.

"If we get four in the team we'd be ecstatic – five we'd be jumping and singing," said Glasgow-based McCormack, who is bullish about numbers in overall contention. "Our target for London was between 6 and 7% of the whole team," he said, "yet now we are wondering whether we might even make 10%."

There were 16 Paralympic Scots in Beijing, against 31 at the Olympics. This time it looks like being close to parity.

That's one type of equality which disability sport would relish, but ongoing debate over an integrated single Games for disability and mainstream seems frankly crazy. Paralympic sport would be even more marginalised if it were staged at the same time as the Olympics. The logistics and cost of hosting an additional 4000-plus competitors concurrently with some 10,500 at the Olympics would surely deter bidders and lead to longer Games, the curtailment of events in both categories, and lower numbers and fewer disciplines.

When the issue arose in December, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was unequivocally against a merger. Britain's most successful Paralympian, with 11 gold medals, said the Para event would "disappear off the face of the earth. That way we wouldn't have an opportunity to showcase the vast majority of sports like we do now. There is not a city in the world that could host a Games the size of the two combined".

Controversy was rekindled last month when a BBC poll of 10,294 respondents across 19 nations found 47% in favour of integrating the two events, with just 43% for a separate Paralympics. Eight countries wanted to merge, six favoured holding them separately, with five divided. Predictably, major medal-winning nations were opposed: China 67% separate, 27% integrated; USA 64%, 29%; Australia 54%, 42%; UK 50%, 46.

Both McCormack and Gavin Macleod, CEO of Scottish Disability Sport, are in no doubt that a separate Paralympics is preferable.

"Certain disability groups would be marginalised," says McCormack. He has been a key figure in the battle to have athletes with learning difficulties restored to the Paralympic programme after a 12-year absence. "In Rio, in 2016, we hope there will be an even wider and more open programme. But with a single integrated Games, numbers would diminish. Would there be a place for dwarves? Would spina bifida be marginalised? Every potential host city would certainly be terrified by the cost."

There is also the fact that thus far the Olympics have hogged the media agenda – though Channel 4 can be proud of breaking the mould of TV coverage. However, with a single Games, and a single host broadcaster, this would almost certainly not have happened.

"With a separate Paralympics, come the Olympic closing ceremony, hopefully it will then be our time," adds McCormack.

Teams have yet to be named, but among the principle contenders are Libby Clegg, the visually impaired sprinter from Newcastleton. The Borderer won Paralympic 100m silver in Beijing, and 100m gold and 200m bronze at the IPC World Championships last year in New Zealand. A family double is a possibility. Her younger brother Jamie, who suffers from the same degenerative eye condition, is in contention for the swimming team.

The shape of that squad will be clearer after the three-day International Disability Event which starts in Sheffield on Friday. Fifer Craig Rodgie has already achieved the qualifying mark, but Jamie is among at least six other Scots very close to the required qualifying performances. Scotland boasts several other contenders: visually impaired cyclists Neil Fachie and Aileen McGlynn. Fachie, from Aberdeen, was a Paralympic sprinter four years ago, but has switched to track cycling, while McGlynn, double Beijing gold medallist from Glasgow, is aiming for her third Paralympics.

Hamilton's Stephen McGuire is ranked No.3 in the world in boccia. He is a double world silver medallist, and leads the British BC4 team, including his brother, at the BT Paralympic World Cup next month in Manchester. Britain boasts athletes ranked first, and two ranked second, in various boccia classifications.

Scotland also has one player in the GB wheelchair rugby squad – making its debut four years ahead of rugby sevens in 2016. Mike Kerr, from Uddingston, is in the pool for the two-day Olympic test event on April 18 and 19.

With the Paralympics so strongly embedded, it is hard, or desirable, to see a merger. As Gavin Macleod says: "Access and transport issues would also be exacerbated. On the other hand, disability sport will be part of an integrated programme at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow."

That will inevitably colour perceptions on disability.

"Seeing our own athletes as part of a Scotland team alongside mainstream sportsmen and women will make a big difference," he adds.

Hopefully, when it comes to signing sponsors, Glasgow 2014 will remember the Olympic lesson. One wheelchair user complained during the ticketing process for 2012 that he could not buy any, because they had to be paid for with the credit card of an Olympic sponsor. He could not obtain such a card because he was in receipt of disability benefit.

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