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Paralympics takes center stage

Spain flag-bearer Teresa Perales lauds wider coverage of event in London

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Teresa Perales poses with the Spanish flag before the Paralympics in London. EFE

Spain's delegation at the Paralympic Games in London this year totals 224 people; 142 athletes, plus support staff, coaches, doctors and technicians. It is a huge operation and rightly so, as Spain has been among the preeminent nations since the modern Games began in 1988, the first time the Paralympics shared the stage with the Olympics and the first time in 24 years that both were held in the same city.

Seoul was the starting point for the expansion of the modern Paralympics — which began in London in 1948, contested by British World War II veterans — but it was in Barcelona four years later that athletics for people with disabilities really took off in Spain. The nation won 107 medals, its highest-ever haul. But unlike the country's Olympic team, which also recorded its best total — 22 — at the 1992 Games, the Paralympic squad's performance was no flash in the pan.

In Atlanta it won 106 medals, then matched that haul in Sydney. Athens brought 71 medals and 58 came Spain's way in Beijing, ensuring that since 1992 it has always been in the top ten.

Spain's fortunes in London will be largely shaped in the pool. Thirty five of its athletes are swimmers and one, Teresa Perales, is on the cusp of making history. Not only was the 36-year-old Zaragozan tasked with leading out her country at Wednesday's opening ceremony, but she also has the chance to become its most decorated Paralympian. She is currently tied on 16 medals with Purificación Santamarta, the all-rounder who won medals in sprint, middle-distance and long jump, and will compete in eight events at the Games.

"I have been in a wheelchair for many years and who could have said one day I would be the flag-bearer for my country?" said Perales before the team left for London. "I'm incredibly proud."

Perales is also a politician in her native Zaragoza and, with Real Madrid legend Raúl González, headed Madrid's bid for the 2016 Olympic Games. And she expects to carry on in Rio. "I have a lot of motivation to continue."

Perales is also enthused by the coverage: "It's the first time I've seen so much on television about the Paralympics. In other years when the Olympics finished it seemed that was it, but people are hungry for more, maybe because of the time zone. People have become hooked."