RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This year's Paralympics have been the best-attended games since the movement began back in 1960. Over 4,200 athletes from 164 countries are taking part in games that end this weekend. Disabled athletes began competing after World War II when a doctor in Britain organized the international wheelchair games to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics. Tanni Grey Thompson is one of Britain's most successful paralympians.
She began in Seoul in 1988 competing in wheelchair racing, and she competed in five games up through Athens in 2004. Thompson won 11 gold, four silver, and one bronze medal, and she joined us from the Olympic Park. Good morning.
TANNI GREY THOMPSON: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: You know, people have been turning out in droves to watch these events. Tell us about the atmosphere there this week.
THOMPSON: The atmosphere is just incredible, and already before the Olympics began, it was the biggest number of tickets that had ever been sold at a Paralympic Games. To put it into context, 100,000 tickets were sold for Beijing, and the rest were given away, and before the Olympics, London had sold 1.4 million. And then because of the success of the Olympics and Team GB doing very well, the ticket sales just went wild, and now there's two-and-a-half million tickets have been sold.
It's packed every day. There's 82,000 people in the athletic stadium for heats, the pool, the rugby, everything is full, and I'm really proud of that. And I think what London's done is just sets sort of the benchmark quite high for Rio to follow on afterwards. But it is difficult because, you know, athletes experience, or have very different experiences coming from their home countries. Some as disabled people are treated very well, some have an awful lot of challenges to overcome.
And countries that have no welfare program whatsoever for disabled people don't tend to compete at the Paralympics.
MONTAGNE: There's one thing reminiscent of how the Paralympic movement began after World War II with veterans who had been wounded. In these Paralympics, a number of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other conflicts are competing.
THOMPSON: It's really interesting when you look at the history of the games, you know. It began because of World War II veterans, and in the UK, at that point in the late 1940s, you were left in hospital to die because the assumption was that you wouldn't have anything to contribute back to society so you might as well be allowed to slip away. And Ludwig Guttmann, who actually escaped out of Nazi Germany, he was a German Jew, he was sort of brought in to run the hospital, and he recognized that, you know, just because you broke your back, it didn't mean your life was over.
Not only did he start this amazing sports movement, he revolutionized the treatment of spinal cord injuries. And so all through the years of evolution, we've had veterans who have competed. And I went to one of our rehab bases about a year and a half ago, and I took my daughter, who was eight at the time. And I was asked to go along and talk about sport. And actually when I got there, most of, you know, the men, because it was mostly men there, said, you know, they wanted to talk about family, they wanted to talk about kids, they wanted to talk about, you know, do your children treat you any differently.
And the answer is, you know, children are just - they try and get one over on their parents whatever happens. It doesn't matter if you're in your chair or you're a leg amputee, or whatever. And I think for us it's important just to open people's minds to say, okay, if you're disabled or you're a war veteran, whatever, you can be part in society and you can be an elite athlete.
MONTAGNE: And I also wonder, you mentioned a moment ago that some of these athletes are coming from countries that don't accept disability very well. Can you give an example?
THOMPSON: Well, I think the first time I became aware of it was competing in Korea in '88, where they didn't have a strong program of athletes. We didn't see them compete very often on the world scale, but when it came around to their games, the Korean team did exceptionally well, and they had gone round and found disabled people, many of whom were living on the streets, and put them into sporting programs.
You know, another example is I was in Rwanda and, you know, they have a significant number of young men who are leg amputees, which occurred during the genocide, and they now play together in sitting volleyball teams. So sport has brought together what would perceived as two sides, and sort of brought them together to play on a national team. It's a combination, I think, of disabled people and sport - has the power to bring people together in a very positive way.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
THOMPSON: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: Tanni Grey Thompson is regarded as Britain's most successful paralympian. In 2010, she was appointed a baroness, and now sits in the House of Lords. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.