Paralympic president clarifies Pistorius stance, looks to Rio

Oscar Pistorius, Alan Oliveira

The International Paralympic Committee will celebrate its 25-year anniversary by looking to the future at a conference in Berlin next month. Before the event, IPC president Sir Philip Craven discussed topics in a phone interview, starting with the recent news concerning the world’s most famous Paralympian.

On Friday, Oscar Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide in shooting and killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013. Pistorius could face up to 15 years in prison on that charge, but there is no minimum prison sentence.

The IPC was asked after the verdict if Pistorius would be eligible to compete in the Paralympics again, and a spokesman said “we would not stand in his way.”

Craven clarified the IPC’s stance Monday.

“I think there’s been some misinterpretation of what was said,” Craven said. “The question was primarily one of a legal nature. If a number of processes do take place, the ones following the others, then there is, I suppose, an outside possibility that Oscar Pistorius could have an opportunity to compete in the Paralympic Games once again. I want to make it very clear here, to you, that never at any time have we, the IPC, intended to give the impression that we were promoting a comeback from Oscar Pistorius.”

Craven said the IPC is an “observer of the tragic process” that took place in South Africa and has had no contact with Pistorius, the first double amputee to run in the Olympics in 2012.

What’s closer to the forefront for the IPC is its 25-year anniversary and the Rio 2016 Paralympics.

In October, the IPC will hold a conference in Berlin to mark its 25th anniversary.

“We will consider the next 25 years at Berlin,” Craven said. “It’s a real opportunity for the members to meet together and talk over the opportunities for the future.”

Craven recently met with IOC president Thomas Bach and discussed, among other topics, the relationship between the IOC and the IPC when it comes to sponsorships and Bach’s upcoming Agenda 2020, a map for the future of the Olympic movement.

Much has changed since the Paralympic Summer Games were last held in the Western Hemisphere in 1996. Nearly 60 more nations and 1,000 more athletes competed in London than in Atlanta.

The Paralympic vision is “to enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.” Craven said he wants to add one more word to that with the Rio Games — to inspire and excite the entire world.

“I see this as a big opportunity to bring Paralympic sport to the whole of the Americas,” Craven said of Rio, “continuing whether it was a roller coaster or a spaceship that took off in London [in 2012], or whether it took off in Beijing and took a massive boost in London.”

In particular, Craven remembered a moment at the London 2012 Paralympics. The track and field crowd became so loud at Olympic Stadium that British sprinter Jonnie Peacock had to ask for quiet before the start of a race.

The IPC president believes that the maturation of the Paralympics has shown that its schedule on the calendar, starting between two and three weeks after the Olympics, is the right spot.

“This concept now of a 60-day festival of sport, the Olympics followed by the Paralympics, is something that London and Sochi proved to be a great success,” Craven said.

Rio 2016 Paralympic storylines

John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

John McFall

The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

Ilia Malinin

Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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