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Festival of flame ignites hope for disabled

London, Sept. 10: The Paralympic Games closed in London last night with a “festival of the flame” and organisers hoping that attitudes to disability would change throughout the world.

The idea of the flame is to denote that the spirit of the Paralympics — celebrated with fireworks, acrobatics, a concert by Coldplay, the popular British band, which performed with Rihanna and Jay-Z — will burn brightly down the generations.

The honour of carrying the Indian flag at the closing ceremony was given to the country’s lone medallist, Girisha Hosanagara Nagarajegowda, the 24-year-old high jumper from Karnataka, who has had celebrity status thrust on him overnight.

Just as Oscar Pistorius, the 25-year-old “blade runner” from South Africa, has been the poster boy of London 2012, Girisha will similarly have to be the ambassador for paralympic sport in India.

Day One of his new life begins tomorrow when the Indian paralympic team arrives in Delhi.

In London, he has come across as a level-headed and modest young man but the silver medallist will have to get used to having his palms crossed with even more silver from now on.

“I come from a poor rural family in Karnataka — and, no, I have no job,” Girisha has admitted to The Telegraph.

Sports minister Ajay Maken flew to London last week, hosted a dinner for the 10 paralympian athletes and promised good government jobs for all.

According to team press officer Amrita Singh, “he has promised to give Rs 10 lakh to any athlete ranked 4th to 12th, which means nine out of 10 qualify (one shooter has missed out).”

Girisha has been promised “lots of money” — “Rs 30 lakh from the central government, Rs 1 crore from Narendra Modi (and) Rs 25 lakh from the Karnataka government, and a BMW from BMW”.

Amrita laughed: “I have no idea if he can drive but he is now rich enough to afford a driver.”

After what they have seen and experienced in London, the Indian paralympians will probably be driven by missionary zeal.

“The closing ceremony was excellent,” the team’s chef de mission, Rathan Singh, told this newspaper today before boarding his Delhi-bound flight.

“The whole arrangement of the Games, A to Z, was excellent. We (the Indian contingent, including especially the officials) have had plenty of publicity in India, both good and bad.”

He was pleased the Indian sports minister had come to London and seen “the football and the rugby and the crowds and how people are enjoying (the Games)”.

The stadium has been packed nightly throughout the Paralympics with 80,000 spectators, who have also crowded the venues for football, sitting volleyball, fencing and cycling — in the velodrome and out in the open — and especially the aquatics centre for the swimming.

Attempts by the UK government to cash in a political dividend from the Paralympic Games were abandoned when three senior cabinet ministers — George Osborne, Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt — were roundly booed by the crowd when they distributed medals.

In contrast, Sebastian Coe, former Olympic double gold medallist turned Tory peer and chairman of the Olympic and Paralympic organising committee, was cheered last night when he said: “In this country, we will never think of sport the same way and we will never think of disability the same way.”

He said the paralympians had “lifted the cloud of limitation” and explained: “The Paralympic Games have set new records every day, sporting records, records for crowds, for television audiences, for unbridled spirit.”

The organisers said 2.7 million tickets had been sold for Paralympic events, making them the best-attended in history. A total of 421 Paralympic records were broken, of which 251 were world records.

New research shows that eight in ten British adults believe this year’s Paralympics have had a positive impact on the way disabled people are viewed by the public.

The theme was taken up by Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, who declared that in his opinion and those of the athletes, the London 2012 Paralympic Games were unique and “without doubt...the greatest Paralympics ever”.

There is now the hope that the Paralympic Games will bring “enlightenment” on the issue of disability, not just in Britain but across the world.

“I can only speak for Britain,” said Caroline Searle, chief press officer for British Paralympics. “I understand in India, it is a different culture. But look at China — 10 years ago they pretended disability didn’t exist in China. Now look at them — they are on top.”

China has won 231 medals (95 gold, 71 silver, 65 bronze). Russia is second with 102 medals (36 gold, 38 silver and 28 bronze), while the host nation, Britain, has exceeded its target of 103 medals by winning 120 (34 gold, 43 silver and 43 bronze).

Out of 164 participating nations, 75 won at least one medal.

Iran had 24 (10 gold, 7 silver, 7 bronze), Nigeria 13 (6 gold, 5 silver, 2 bronze), Egypt 15 (4 gold, 4 silver, 7 bronze) and Thailand 8 (4 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze).

The ambition is to encourage the young, and the British organisers were thrilled that so many parents had brought their children along. “We hope the next generation will be inspired.”

Britain’s summer of sport was ending today with a victory parade by 700 of the country’s medal winners and other participants in the Olympics and Paralympics.

A total of 21 floats, arranged in alphabetical order with “archery” first and “volleyball” last, were part of the procession from Mansion House to Buckingham Palace via St Paul’s Cathedral, Fleet Street, the Strand, past India House in the Aldwych and Trafalgar Square.

Prominence is being given to Somali-born Mo Farah, Olympic gold medallist in both the 5,000m and 10,000m, who spoke on ITV today about getting children involved in sport from a young age.

“It’s very important that we introduce children to sport. Sport’s helped me. I’ve travelled around the world. If I didn’t get into sport at an early age, then I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.