The Paralympic Dream; as the Nation Basks in the after Glow of Stunning Olympic Games Success, in Just a Few Days Wales Will Get a Chance to Intensify the 'Feel Good' Factor Created by Our Beijing Medallists. Saturday Marks the Beginning of the Ever-Growing Paralympic Games with More Welsh Athletes Competing Than Ever Before

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Byline: Darren Devine reports

IT began as a humane attempt to rehabilitate World War Two veterans with spinal cord injuries 50 years ago.

But now the Paralympics has grown to a major global sporting event, whose elite performers could soon be attracting levels of sponsorship associated with mainstream athletes.

On Saturday 4,000 athletes from 150 countries will begin competing in Beijing using the same venues that have become familiar to audiences watching the Olympics last month.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who is arguably Wales' and the UK's greatest ever Paralympian,with11 gold medals, is in Beijing to commentate on this year's games.

She has observed first-hand how in terms of prestige, money and interest the Games have been transformed.

She said: "There are some Paralympians who are now approaching the sponsorship levels mainstream athletes get.

"I think it's going to happen within the next four years.

"Profile has grown hugely as has the number of countries competing.

"Each sport has a limit on the number of athletes competing, but more countries are coming in.

"My sport, athletics, is unbelievably well represented around the world now compared with 40 years ago - a bit like the Olympics itself really.

"In 1908 Britain won lots of medals because they were in lots of events that no-one else turned up and did."

China is one of the more recent countries to begin sending athletes to the Paralympics and Dame Tanni believes the country could dominate these Games just as it did the Olympics.

"They finished top of the medal table in Athens (at the last Paralympics) and they're going to do unbelievably well here.

"There's one city in China, Xian, with 578,000 disabled people, which means their pool of people is much bigger.

"There's about 80 million disabled people in China. So even if you take out 15 million because they're too young, 20 million because they're too old and 20 million because they don't fancy doing sport it still leaves them with a massive pool of talent."

Media coverage of the Games has also expanded dramatically both in terms of television and newspapers.

Dam Tanni, who is commentating on the Games for the BBC, added: "Coverage has improved significantly. The BBC are going to be doing five hours of interactive coverage every day and a one hour live show.

"The Telegraph have sent someone out and the red tops (papers like The Sun and The Mirror) who would maybe give it a little bit of coverage are now starting to improve their coverage.

"It's being taken more seriously by everybody. Disabled sport is moving into the mainstream. It's not there yet in terms of sponsorship, but it's getting ever closer."

As the Games' prestige and profile grows so the competition for medals intensifies. But, with Wales sending its biggest ever contingent of athletes to the Games. expert observers are hopeful we can add to the three golds collected at the Olympics.

The leading medal contenders in the 31-strong contingent of Welsh athletes are swimmers David Roberts and Nyree Lewis, cyclists Jody Cundy and Ellen Hunter, sprinter John McFall, and discus, javelin and shot-put thrower Nathan Stephens.

Dame Tanni said: "David Roberts has the potential to win four golds.

"For Nathan Stephens medalling might be a bit beyond where he is at the minute, but he certainly should be up there in the mix. He's probably a bit more of a 2012 contender.

"John McFall is another contender to be a medallist.

"If you look at athletics as a sport the team is quite young, which bodes well for London in 2012.

"It's amazing for Wales and you have to think about how many more athletes they will have found in another four years."

Chair of Disability Sport Wales Gareth John believes the depth of talent from Wales means we have every reason to be hopeful of building on the Olympic successes. …