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Canadian athletes bask in bright Paralympic spotlight in London

Canada's flagbearer wheelchair rugby player Garett Hickling during the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 Paralympics in London, Wednesday Aug. 29, 2012.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Canada's athletes feel Paralympic sport hit a new level of recognition and respect in London.

Whether that spotlight extends to Canada when they go home after Sunday's closing ceremonies of the Paralympic Games is debatable.

But the Canadians have enjoyed their status as the top show in London and that's with the Premiere League soccer season opening just prior to the Games.

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Ticket sales, television ratings and anecdotal information from the athletes themselves indicate the host city embraced the Paralympic Games like none before it.

The 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium was full for track and field finals. The velodrome was ear-splitting, particularly when a British cyclist was on the track. The swimming pool stands had people in them all the way to the top row.

"What's new about these Games is the popularity of the events," four-time Paralympic swimmer Benoit Huot said. "Sold out for heats, sold out for finals.

"We've never seen that. In Sydney, Athens and Beijing, in the heats it wasn't sold out. There were people, but it was mostly summer camps or kids from schools. Here, it's public that bought tickets and that's a first."

One cab driver said prior to the Games that Londoners who rolled their eyes at the prospect of hosting the Olympic Games became so caught up in their country's performance that they wanted to experience the Games environment.

The Paralympics gave them an opportunity to do so. The Paralympic movement already had traction in Britain because the country is considered the birthplace of the Games.

With three days still to go, organizers had said more than 2.7 million tickets were sold, which beat Beijing four years ago by 900,000.

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"I think the recognition of the Paralympics among the fans in Britain has been astounding," said Ottawa distance runner Jason Dunkerly, another four-time Paralympian.

"Just walking around on the street and talking to people and people are just saying it's made their lives better and changed their lives. I think it's really sincere and genuine. It's exciting to think an event like this can do that for people in the city."

As BBC did for the Olympics, host broadcaster Channel 4 provided daily live coverage of the Paralympics and live-streamed several events on-line.

Viewership hit more than six million when Britain's Jonnie Peacock beat South Africa's Oscar Pistorius in the 100 on Day 9, according to United Kingdom Press Association.

The PA also said the popularity of the Games prompted Channel 4 to change its schedule early in the Games and stop airing non-Paralympic content.

The Paralympics were broadcast in more than 100 countries, but little of it was live on North American television. CTV provided daily packaged highlight shows and some live on-line coverage in Canada. NBC was scheduled to air four one-hour highlight shows and one special a week after the Games.

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The London organizing committee (LOCOG) said 21,000 international media covered the Olympic Games, compared to 6,500 for the Paralympics.

"I don't mean to be cynical. It's going to be a great couple of weeks and have an impact, inspiring youth and inspiring a generation, and I believe in that kind of thing," Canadian basketball player Patrick Anderson said. "On the other hand, it's not like we're suddenly going to be front-page news going forward."

Wheelchair sprinter Michelle Stilwell, winner of gold and silver in London, noticed an uptick in interest in her on social media, which is a boon to Paralympic sport.

People interested in Paralympians can track and reach out to them even if mainstream media gives them less priority than other sports.

"My Facebook fan page has grown by 3,000 people in the last couple of days," Stilwell said. "To be a part of the Paralympic movement as it grows and starts to really shine, I'm so grateful to be a part of that."

Huot, winner of gold, silver and bronze in the pool, says it was the small details in the athletes' village that impressed him in London. The proximity of the village to the sport venues, transportation, quality of food, access to Internet everywhere and cable television in his room made him feel comfortable.

"LOCOG did an amazing job for the Olympics and it's the same thing for the Paralympics," he said. "Overall, they were the best organized and most efficient Games that I've been to."

London has been a springboard for Paralympic sport in Britain. Winning over 100 medals helps. It will be up to 2016 host Rio de Janeiro to match Britain's enthusiasm for the Paralympic Games.

"It's got a bright future," Dunkerly said. "It's not without its challenges, but we're all human."

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