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One year to Paralympics

Observance of date is low-key as event remains a 'hard sell'

On Wednesday the Salt Lake Organizing Committee begins its second countdown toward welcoming the world to Salt Lake City — 365 days until the opening ceremonies of the VIII Winter Paralympic Games.

But don't expect a party this week with music or fireworks over downtown. Organizers have decided to skip a public celebration in favor of a quieter, in-house fete for staff.

"Our initial celebration with the staff is the first step," said Paralympic Managing Director Xavier Gonzalez. "We will begin to build some momentum and I think, do something more public in mid-September when we announce our lineup for the opening ceremonies."

The decision was "disappointing" but "not surprising" to some Paralympic athletes from around the world who competed in the Disabled Alpine World Cup events at Snowbasin last weekend.

"I would like it to get more recognition, but I don't get offended," said Bart Bunting, a 23-year-old blind ski racer from Australia. "(The Paralympics) are just not that popular, not saying we are better or worse than the able-bodied Olympics. But we are not high profile in the media. There's not really a public interest, and I don't think there's a commercial drive for it."

To the unenlightened, the Paralympics continue to be a "hard sell" with the public and with sponsors, despite the fact that the movement has seen steady growth in recent years, Gonzalez said. In 1976 at the first winter Paralympics in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, 250 athletes from 14 countries competed. Salt Lake is expected to draw some 600 participants from 40 nations.

"But for a long time the Olympics were also a hard sell. It was almost bankrupt in Montreal," he said.

An agreement penned in Sydney to formalize a relationship between the governing bodies of both events — the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee — should fortify the Paralympics considerably and help move the event out from under the shadow of the rings, he said. Under the new agreement, by 2008, all Olympic organizing committees will have to agree to produce both events.

As the first organizing committee to officially produce both events, SLOC is breaking ground and paving a new future for both games, Gonzalez said.

"Salt Lake City, we are the guinea pigs," he said. "SLOC is breaking ground and creating the model of the future."

Paralympic athletes say the difference is immediately evident. World Cup participants said the course, event preparations and other accommodations were the best they'd seen on the international circuit.

Some 325,000 tickets go on sale for the Paralympics this summer. Gonzalez said his goal is to get 200,000 spectators, which would be a Winter Games records.

At Saturday's World Cup events, however, there were more athletes, coaches, volunteers and staff on hand than spectators. Only about 20 people dotted the bleachers near the finish line of the race course. Of those in attendance, most said they were driven by curiosity more than the free tickets.

Alpine events planned for Snowbasin during the Paralympics include the downhill, super-G, giant slalom and slalom races. Nordic events at Soldier Hollow near Midway include the biathlon, cross-country and cross-country relays. And ice sledge hockey is planned for the E Center in West Valley City.

Athletes are classified by their disabilities, including visual impairments, amputees, spinal cord injuries and others.

"It's incredible to see what they have done (at Snowbasin). We hear so much about it, but it's kind of abstract until you see it," South Ogden resident Kathy Stuart said. "And it's amazing to see the athletes. . . . They come down the mountain like they have no (disability) at all."