Nick Butler
Nick Butler There was a spectacular finale to the heritage Flame Lighting Ceremony at the Paralympic Movement's birthplace of Stoke Mandeville on Saturday.

The event had initially seemed a relatively low key affair bearing more resemblance to a British Garden fête than a Russian sporting extravaganza. The atmosphere was pleasant and enjoyable but also relaxed and, to my shame, I had even begun to drift off, lost in a spiral of emails, rather than paying close attention to the ongoing Ceremony.

But, as a nudge from a bemused communications worker revived me from my slumber, I looked up to see London 2012 champion Hannah Cockroft suspended in what I later learned was an "Armillary Sphere" as flames and fireworks spiralled out across the Buckinghamshire sky.

It was sudden, completely unexpected, but utterly spectacular and I hope that it will be a metaphor for the success of the Winter Paralympics as a whole.

The spectacular Heritage Flame Lighting Ceremony at Stoke Mandeville ©Getty ImagesThe spectacular Heritage Flame Lighting Ceremony at Stoke Mandeville ©Getty Images

The Winter Paralympics is something that has never figured particularly highly on my radar, and I think it is fair to say on a more general level that it has historically been a minor affair in comparison with the Summer version.

Yet at the same time it is abundantly clear that if the Games in Russia is anything other than a success it will detract from the overall perception of Sochi 2014.

This is particularly due to Russia's historical intolerance of those with disabilities. For as International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Sir Philip Craven explained last year, the 1980 Paralympics were held in the Dutch city of Arnhem rather than Moscow, after the Soviet Union insisted "they cannot take place here because nobody has an impairment".

So Sochi 2014 provides an opportunity to illustrate a "New Russia" in terms of attitudes but it also carries the risk that elements of "Old Russia" may persevere.

Although there has been huge praise of Sochi's progress regarding barrier access for the disabled, both the IPC and the Russian Paralympic Committee have admitted concerns over recent months regarding faltering ticket sales.

Having attended the Olympic Games in Sochi, I feel that atmosphere could potentially be a problem although I did also see signs for optimism.

Fans crowd into the Olympic Park to catch a glimpse of the ice hockey action ©Getty ImagesIt will be a challenge to revive the Olympic Park atmosphere seen during the Olympics 
©Getty Images

On one hand the Olympic Park is large and felt eerie and was relatively lacking in atmosphere during the Olympics until the Games were a few days old.

Although the vibe did then improve massively, with just the two sports of ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling being held in the Park this time around - in comparison to five disciplines during the Olympics - I anticipate this being a issue once again.

On the other hand there was a clear presence of people in wheelchairs in Sochi. This included one particularly helpful media centre worker who, to us at least, was the television controller-in-chief whenever we felt a sudden urge to request a switch from skeleton to ski-cross.

Barrier access seemed good to the untrained eye but to me the key requirement is Russian sporting success.

In cross-country and biathlon events success will certainly happen. These sports provided all 38 of Russia's Vancouver 2010 medals and the squad have been just as dominant on the World Cup stage this season. But the challenge is succeeding in other sports as well and particularly in those to be held in the Olympic Park. A medal in ice sledge hockey, where Russia are the third seeds, or in wheelchair curling, where they came sixth at the 2013 World Championships, would truly add to the spectacle.

But the presence of Sochi 2014 chief Dmitry Chernyshenko at a chilly Stoke Mandeville on Saturday - chillier surely than the weather will be next week in Sochi - provided a glimpse of how seriously the Organising Committee are taking both Games.

In his speech Chernyshenko hailed how Paralympic fever, through the Torch Relay, is "touching the hearts and minds in every corner of Russia ready for the greatest ever celebration of Paralympic winter sport".

Dmitry Chernyshenko and Sir Philip Craven are each confident that the Paralympics will be successful ©Getty ImagesDmitry Chernyshenko and Sir Philip Craven are each confident that the Paralympics will be successful ©Getty Images

Speaking beforehand, he described how Sochi has become a model city for the rest of Russia and that attitudes towards disabilities are a key part of this.

"Before we started preparations for the Paralympics, although we have more than 15 million people with disabilities, they were simply not able to go out onto the street," he admitted to insidethegames.

"But now the situation has changed completely. The people have changed their attitudes and that is much more important than the physical environment. We have ramps and doors and attitude to those with disabilities is now equal. People are starting to share Paralympic values about equality, determination and inspiration."

Next came the obligatory question about ticket sales. I was greeted by a beaming smile and the answer: "Yes, this is my favourite question," from Chernyshenko.

Unfortunately, he was just getting going with an answer about how concerns had been addressed when we were confronted by a communication officer gesturing in the sort of cut-throat way that could only mean time was up and the interview was over.

But, clearly slightly perturbed at being halted in mid flow, Chernyshenko called back as he was hauled away: "All tickets have been sold."

Sir Philip Craven was also highly optimistic. "We are looking forward to very good crowds and hoping to be able to see, in less than a week's time, sold out stadiums," he told insidethegames.

"We are waiting until we get there to say that but we've had very good feedback on that since we raised those concerns two or three months ago.

In a more general sense, Sir Philip was highly confident the Games will be a roaring success.

"Sochi is again breaking new ground," he declared. "I always look at what athletes need - they need good transport, accommodation, food, training facilities and competition facilities. They are all there - we've seen them and they are all operational. I cannot wait to get back out there."

Unfortunately when turning on my computer this morning it was to be confronted by a strange sense of déjà vu. For Prince Edward, patron of the British team, is boycotting the Games in response to the Russian invasion of Crimea.

It seems a long time ago that a Sochi 2014 diplomatic boycott provided an almost daily dose of entertainment but after being ultimately overshadowed by sport during the Olympics, the ongoing escalation in Ukraine will provide an ever greater challenge.

There has been widespread criticism of Russia's action in Crimea. Putin played the nice guy during the Games but is now returning to norm, is the general complaint.

A Russian flag outside the Crimean Parliament building today gives a hint of the Russian influence ©Getty ImagesA Russian flag outside the Crimean Parliament building today gives a hint of the Russian influence ©Getty Images

I actually think it is a lot more complicated than that. Crimea was only transferred from Russian to Ukrainian regional control in 1954 and still has a majority of ethnic Russians today. It is still the base for Russia's navy in Sevastopol - and with Russia being forced to suspend usage of its other main warm-water port in Tartus, Syria last year, it is too much of a risk to not defend this one.

But what it does show is that Putin no longer fears Western responses and the Olympics, where he so outmanoeuvred boycotting Western leaders, helped bring about this confidence.

So what does this mean for the Paralympics?

The expected responses to Prince Edward's non attendance have been circulated today.
After expressing his hopes for a "peaceful resolution", IPC spokesman Craig Spence stressed how "the IPC is here in Sochi to organise a major international sporting event, and not to get involved in global politics".

But as we see time and time again the Olympics and Paralympics are irretrievably linked to global politics and the timing in terms of the Games is terrible.

Despite the confidence of Chernyshenko, atmosphere and enthusiasm also remains a potential problem but, after witnessing Russia pull off what was generally considered a roaring success in Sochi, I would tentatively predict that the Paralympics will be a triumph in that regard as well.  

But events in Ukraine are out of the IPC and Sochi 2014's hands and time will tell how much they affect the Games.

Nick Butler is a reporter for insidethegames. To follow him on Twitter click here.