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From War To Competition: Vets In Paralympics


A marathon around the city of London wraps up the 2012 Paralympics Games today. They're the biggest, best-attended games in the history of the event, which began as an exhibition of World War II veterans, also in London, at the 1948 Olympics. Veterans from recent wars are returning to the competition now to find a very competitive tournament, and one in which the United States seems to be playing catch-up.

NPR's Quil Lawrence has attended the games. He joins us now from outside London. Quil, welcome.


WERTHEIMER: Let's start with the vets. The two wars of the past 10 years have left many veterans severely wounded; many of them lost arms and legs. There have also been some amazing advances in prosthetics to help those vets. Are you seeing the results of those technical advances at the Paralympics?

LAWRENCE: I'm seeing them more on vets and on disabled people walking around than in the field of play. Incredible new prosthetic legs and hands; legs that you plug in overnight, like a cell phone, and they charge up and they have microprocessors in them. So it becomes a sort of an intelligent artificial knee that knows when to stay stiff when you want to squat down, and when to swing free when you're going upstairs. There's something there's a lot of talk about they've been calling the Luke Skywalker hand that has a lot more motor ability, fine precision motor ability than previous hands.

And Otto Bock, a German-based company, is actually sort of the pit crew for the Paralympics. They have a huge workshop and anyone can come in and have their wheelchair or their prosthetics fixed, or sometimes even replaced.

WERTHEIMER: So is that technology improving the performance of these athletes, especially the veterans?

LAWRENCE: It's not so much in improving their performance on the field. For example, one of the vets we profiled last week, rower Rob Jones, who's a former Marine who lost his legs in Afghanistan, he wears those fancy microprocessor legs. And then he gets down to the boat and pops them off. And once he's rowing, essentially it's all arm power so he's just using basically a stilt in the boat.

And the fancy running blades that you've probably seen, those were really developed back in the 1970s. And it's mostly the athletes who are driving those, not the technology.

WERTHEIMER: So, Quil, how are the U.S. vets doing?

LAWRENCE: They're doing quite well. The ones we profiled, Rob Jones, for example, took bronze. And a blind swimmer, Bradley Snyder, has done very well. He got a gold medal on Friday night in the 400-meter freestyle. But, you know, in the stories we've written about them, we said that veterans were somehow raising the bar of competition here at the Paralympics Games. And I have to say a listener wrote into our website to say: If you think you need veterans in these games to raise the bar, you just don't know Paralympic athletes.

And I stand corrected. These are incredibly competitive people from all over the world, vets and non-vets.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about one athlete, not a veteran, someone many Americans have heard of because he competed in the other Summer Games in London, Oscar Pistorius. How is he doing?

LAWRENCE: Well, his South Africa team won the 400-meter relay and last night he took the gold in the 400-meter sprint, which is his best event. But he got beaten in a race he expected to win, the 200-meter, by a young Brazilian admirer of Oscar Pistorius. And Thursday night in the hundred-meter, which everyone was watching, a newcomer, a Brit named Johnny Peacock just wasted the competition.

And when Johnny Peacock won that race it felt like the entire country just went nuts. These athletes are household names in London and everybody is talking about them.

WERTHEIMER: So who's leading the medal count?

LAWRENCE: Well, not the USA. In gold medals, it's China, Russia, Britain, and the U.S. is sixth. In total medals we're coming in fourth place, and everyone has noticed that. And they're not shy about pointing it out to me when they hear my American accent here. Although everyone has been very, very friendly, I should say. But it's just surprising to everyone, I think, that - we're a very rich country, the U.S. We've got relatively good handicapped accessibility.

But according to the organizers, the head of the U.S. Paralympics Committee, we just don't have our act together. Part of that is the much-criticized lack of television coverage by NBC and people just aren't watching back in the States. But organizers said the U.S. needs to do a lot to network together the different disabled sports leagues, and just gear them towards a better showing in the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Quil Lawrence, who is at the London Paralympics, which end today. Quil, thank you.

LAWRENCE: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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