Rio Paralympics: five highlights to remember


Rio de Janeiro (AFP)

The Rio Paralympics featured thrilling victories, records, tears -- and controversy. Here are highlights of the first Games ever held in South America, which end Sunday.

- Tears -

There were few dry eyes at the September 7 opening ceremony in Rio's Maracana stadium when Marcia Malsar, who won gold for Brazil at the 1984 Paralympics, fell while carrying the torch.

She was using a walking stick and the ground had become slippery in an intense tropical rainstorm. But as soon as she fell, she struggled back up, turning the gasps around the stadium into a roar of support.

And in a moment that brought home the suffering that many disabled athletes go through, Belgian wheelchair racer Marieke Vervoort openly discussed the possibility that she will eventually seek to be euthanized.

But in a press conference she denied reports that she'd wanted to die right after the Games, saying that sport continued to give her a reason to live. Vervoort won a silver medal.

Then on the penultimate day of the Games, tragedy struck when Iranian road cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad, 48, was fatally injured during a descent. A minute's silence was to be observed at the closing ceremony.

- High performance -

The Paralympics came right after the Rio Olympics, but the image of the disabled Games being a poor cousin in terms of performance is starting to change.

Even with the absence of history making runner Oscar Pistorius -- who ran in both the Olympics and Paralympics before being convicted of murdering his girlfriend in South Africa -- there were plenty of stunning athletic feats.

No competition epitomized this gradual blurring of lines between able-bodied and disabled sport than the 1,500 meters race won by Algeria's Abdellatif Baka.

The first four runners in the race, with Baka's twin brother coming fourth, actually ran faster than the gold medal winner Matthew Centrowitz in the Olympics a month before.

The statistic was not as astonishing as it first appeared: the Paralympians were running flat out, with Baka setting a new record, while Centrowitz had won in an unusually slow Olympic race.

- Crowds -

There were big worries on the eve of the Paralympics that Brazilian organizers had run out of money and that almost no one would come to watch. Just a month ago, only 12 percent of tickets had been sold.

The first few days did feature embarrassingly empty stadiums. At some venues, people who showed up were asked to move seats so that they formed a more cheerful looking backdrop for television coverage.

However the first weekend saw record numbers and the Games found their groove. Helping that were the strong performances by several star domestic athletes like Brazil's multiple medal winning swimmer Daniel Dias.

By the end, ticket sales were rosy, with total numbers of 2.1 million reported by organizers on Saturday surpassing the 2008 Beijing Games. There was no chance, though, of catching up to the amazing 2.8 million sales at London 2012.

- Russian shadow -

The biggest controversy of the Games came even before they started: the banning of all Russian athletes after evidence was published of a state doping program.

The blanket ban was in marked contrast to the decision by Olympics bosses a month earlier to allow in some Russian competitors. A Belarussian official was expelled after he violated Paralympic rules against political protests by waving a Russian flag during his team's parade in the opening ceremony.

Adding to the acrimony, International Olympic Committee boss Thomas Bach broke with decades of tradition in not attending the Paralympic opening ceremony or even the Games themselves -- explaining that he had prior commitments.

The Russia ban continued to have repercussions in the closing hours of the Paralympics after hackers accessed medical records at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for dozens of athletes who have been allowed to take normally banned substances under medical exemptions.

The hackers, calling themselves "Fancy Bears," are allegedly linked to Russia.

- Boo -

There was trouble closer to home for Brazil, where the president has just been replaced in a nasty impeachment battle. At the opening ceremony, top Olympics official Carlos Nuzman briefly had to stop his speech in the face of ferocious anti-government booing.

When newly sworn in President Michel Temer made a lightening quick statement to declare the Paralympics open he too was booed loudly.