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Why Nobody's Watching the Paralympics

03/10/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT

When politics enters the fray, as it does with the Olympics, athletes always get the sharp end of the stick. For many of them this has been a lifelong mission, that by demonstrating their total unwillingness to be deterred by the obstacles in front of them, that they would be ambassadors of going forward, not backward.

These are the athletes of the Paralympics, and even as Russian president Vladimir Putin continued to be besieged by world opinion he attended the opening ceremonies in Sochi on Friday.

Two weeks ago universal praise for how the Russians organized and carried out the Sochi Olympics began to create a willingness to change decades old perception of the Russian bear. Everywhere people were saying nice things about Russia.

Motoki Yamasaki, an engineer for Olympic Broadcast Services, was one of the few who stayed in Sochi working while the vast majority of journalists, athletes, administrators and television staff left soon after the flame was extinguished.

By then the uprising in the capital of the Ukraine was becoming infinitely more serious.

Motoki posted dozens of pictures of a nearly empty International Broadcast Centre, the mountain cluster, and the main Olympic venues and streets of Sochi. What a different place it was now, he told me on Facebook.

It was ominous, because that's always the way it is just before the Paralympics but especially because of what was happening in the Ukraine.

As the streets of Kiev became a battleground, and Russian troops entered Crimea, the predominant perceptions reappeared.

The world quickly took back any slack they were willing to give Putin.

Sadly, in the case of the Paralympians, the years of training and hard work will largely go unnoticed as the world focuses on the increasingly serious crisis.

My friend and colleague Neil Mallard was the first, and at one time the only, member of the broadcast media who chose to "stay on" following the departure of all the other broadcasters at the end of the "primary" Games. As sports editor of VISNEWS the largest TV News agency in the world at the time it was his job to bring any and all sports to those who wanted it.

Not many wanted the Paralympics. But Neil made the decision to cover them anyways.

Neil attended the forerunner of the modern competition for "disabled" athletes at Stoke, Mandeville, in England, following the London Olympics of 1948. They were called the "International Wheelchair Games" due largely because many of the participants had spinal cord injuries, casualties of the Second World War.

Neil wrote stories, as a young reporter on the Paddington Mercury, about The Guinea Pig Club, which he visited and was made up of patients of Dr. Archibald McIndoe, based at Queen Victoria Hospital in Sussex, who underwent experimental reconstructive plastic surgery during and after the war, generally after receiving burns injuries in aircraft.

"I got to know one of the men quite well," recounted Neil to me via e-mail. "He went on to become the Chief Press Officer to British European Airways. He had a heavily rebuilt face together with badly injured but well-repaired hands. When he first met anybody, he would test their reaction by offering to shake hands. I did not fail the test."

Neither did later generations of Paralympic pioneers.

Call it a true twist of fate but one of the greatest Olympic heroes of all time, the great Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, captured the world's imagination by winning the marathon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome running barefoot. He won the same distance in 1964 in Tokyo.

In 1969 Bikila was involved in a car accident in his native Ethiopia that left him a quadriplegic.

He died four years later of a brain hemorrhage that was a complication as a direct result of the accident.

"Men of success meet with tragedy." Bikila was quoted as saying in his biography that "it was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily."

In two weeks we have seen the world change from a place where positive change was possible to the more cynical version that divides rather than unifies. And terrifies.

The athletes we will see in Sochi now, and the attitude of one of the greatest of Olympic heroes is what we could be talking about today.

Sadly, it won't be.

Its been a tough and arduous road but the general public still support the idea of a Paralympics even if they don't watch them. It seems that this year world events have conspired to put them even further down the priority list.

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