Sochi: Paralympic Winter Games Begin as NBC Boosts Coverage
All eyes around the world were on Sochi last month, and now the slopes of the Russian resort will be filled with international athletes once again as the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games begin.
Featuring all the major winter sports, including downhill skiing, ice skating, hockey, curling, biathlon and introducing snowboarding for the first time, the opening ceremony was on Friday and the games run through March 16, airing on NBC and NBCSN.
The network is dedicating 52 hours of programming to the events -- a dramatic leap from the four hours for the Vancouver Paralympics -- which is partly prompted by the huge success of the Summer Paralympics in London in 2012.
"I hope they do have the same impact as they did in London," said Chris Waddell, NBC host and the most-decorated male skier in Paralympic history. "The aim is to represent Paralympic sport on the highest level but also to bridge the able-bodied world and the disabled world."
The athletes competing have a wide range of disabilities, including paralysis, traumatic brain injury and loss of limbs, and have all overcome amazing adversity to reach the pinnacle of their sports. "It is a combination of people born with congenital issues and those who have been disabled through disease, accidents or by war, so there is a wide spectrum of different things that have brought them together," said Waddell, who's hosting for the first time.
The stories that hit closest to home for Waddell, who was an able-bodied skier until an injury left him paralyzed from the waist down, are the veterans coming back from war. "They can finally take pride in their bodies again. They come back and can go into sport and be on the top of their game relatively soon afterwards," he says, adding that "the military and post-war era is where the Paralympics really came out -- in 1948 following World War II."
Todd Harris, a five-time Olympic snowboarding play-by-play commentator and the voice of action sports on NBC and NBCSN, has noticed an increased number of war vets competing in recent years.
"I remember back in Salt Lake City in 2002, they were mostly athletes that had dealt with these problems their whole lives, but now in the past four years you see more veterans," he told THR. "With the advancements in technology and with carbon fiber, it is amazing how quickly they get them up and going. They (amputees) are getting onto skis, snowboards, playing hockey -- they just rise up and perform."
Waddell agreed that the medical and technological advancements have been invaluable in the progress of the events, which allow people to compete on an even playing field. "There has a been a tremendous change in the prosthetics in terms of materials, shocks, etc., as there was a lot of money that was spent on them granted by the government to do more research," he explains.
The Paralympic Winter Games will feature nearly 700 athletes from 45 countries in 72 medal events, compared to 2,800 athletes from 88 countries competing in 98 medal events at the Olympics in February.
"It is hard for these athletes to get the funding they need, and a lot of these countries just don't have the infrastructure and the support system," explained Harris. "You will see some representing countries that are not officially affiliated."
Stars to look out for are Joel Hunt, who has been through three calls of duty in the military and has post-traumatic stress syndrome and a traumatic brain injury. "He's coming over to ski and has only been skiing since 2008. He's just one of the hundreds of inspirational stories that come out," Harris said.
Tatyana McFadden -- a wheelchair racer who won both the Boston and New York marathons last year – is Waddell's number one pick in the Nordic skiing. Following the USA-Canada hockey face-off last month, both countries are highly anticipated contenders for the Paralympics, as is the curling competition after it became a fan favorite at the Olympics. "Curling seems to be one of those things that you can get hooked on," Harris said. "It is a guilty pleasure. It will probably be a big winner."
Whether you are familiar with the athletes or have never heard their names before, "if you are sitting in a bar and see a double amputee skiing or snowboarding -- you will stop and watch and think, 'Wow that is impressive,'" Harris said. "People just want to see excellence. They embody everything that the Olympic spirit is all about."
Fears of political unrest and terrorist attacks leading up to the Olympics went largely unheeded, and now the major international talking point is the Russian intervention in the Ukraine.
"When we were in Sochi last month it could not have gone smoother," Harris said, adding that he has faith that the executives at NBC will handle the situation appropriately. "I hope we keep the focus on the athletes' achievements, not politics."