The 2012 Paralympics: What Will London Bring?
By Linda Mastandrea
The Paralympic Games, the second largest sporting event in the world after the Olympic Games, will take place this summer in London from August 29 through September 9. Over 4,200 athletes from 165 countries will come to take part, putting years of sweat and sacrifice on the line for a chance to be called “Paralympic Champion.”
These Games are expected to be the biggest ever. In just the four short years since the wildly successful Beijing Paralympic Games, there are 19 more countries who have entered teams this year, and 16 who are making their Paralympic debut.
The success of advance ticket sales is unprecedented, with the huge pre-sale of over a million Paralympic Games tickets as of late June. Because of Great Britain’s pioneering place in the history of the movement, it is not surprising that not only are the ticket sales through the roof, but that the broadcast rights holders will likely bring in excess of $15 million in revenue.
The Paralympic Games opening and closing ceremonies will be well worth attending in themselves. Themed around the idea of “Enlightenment,” the opening will feature over 3,000 performers who will “celebrate the inspirational spirit of the Paralympic movement, which challenges perceptions of human possibility.” Highlighting the closing ceremony will be one of the world’s top rock groups, Coldplay — winner of numerous Grammys, with over 55 million records sold worldwide, ensuring that the Games will end on a high note of celebration.
Evolution of an International Movement
While the success of the Paralympics has much to do with organization and cooperation, the spectacle is still about elite athletes competing for the top prize. In the early years, the United States maintained a stronghold on the podium — from 1964 through 1996 — but in recent years the tides are turning. Other countries, like China, are investing significant resources into the development of their Paralympic athletes and programs. In fact, chief of U.S. Paralympics Charlie Huebner, as well as IPC President Philip Craven, both expect to see China garner the top medal count this summer.
In spite of these early glitches, there have been many triumphant moments in the history of the Paralympic movement. For example, the Seoul 1988 Games were significant for many reasons — this was the first time the Olympics and Paralympics were held in the same specific venues; more than 3,000 athletes competed; 75,000 people attended opening ceremonies; and over 2,300 accredited media covered the Games.
The U.S. Role
These organizations together sat on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s “Committee on Sports for the Disabled,” providing policy recommendations on serving athletes with disabilities. They worked with Disabled Sports Services to provide elite athlete development and access to programs and services.
“The Paralympic assets are unique,” says Huebner. “The Paralympic Sport Clubs, the veterans and military programs — all offer something different than the Olympic property for a sponsor. And,” he says, “we are seeing a significant activation from the sponsors this year.” For example, The Hartford ran a $75 million dollar ad campaign, and more than eight sponsors have included Paralympic athletes as ambassadors.
U.S. Paralympians Speak Out
Although Paralympians are being treated more as athletes and less as “inspirational” role models, many athletes think there is still a ways to go for Paralympians to receive truly equitable treatment from the USOC and other governing bodies. Cheri Blauwet, a leading competitor in wheelchair racing, does think that U.S. Paralympics has been helpful in opening up access to USOC programs and services to Paralympians, but she sees areas for improvement. Growing sponsorship and funding for Paralympians so that athletes can devote themselves full time to training is key, she says. “Many of our athletes continue to work their day jobs, even while in training at a very high level.”
The older Paralympians are more impressed with the current state of affairs, particularly when compared to how it used to be. Bert Burns, who first competed in 1992, remembers having to raise his own money and having tacky uniforms and gear. “Now we get the same gear as the Olympians,” he says. Ella Chafee, whose first competition was way back in 1964, was similarly impressed when she went through team processing for the 1996 Games, “I had never seen so many uniform pieces,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that was all for us!”
The Importance of Media Coverage
Much to the chagrin of U.S. athletes and fans, that coverage won’t include a U.S. broadcast. “If I hadn’t seen the Olympic wheelchair exhibition in 1984, I wouldn’t have known Paralympic sport existed,” says Kevin Orr. Candace Cable, who has a strong opinion about why this happens, says, “I don’t think the media is comfortable with adapted sport or disability in general.” Other Paralympians think the focus is too much on human interest rather than sport performance.
Can the Paralympics Change the World?
Austrian handcyclist Christoph Etzlstorfer agrees. He says that the Paralympic Games let nondisabled people see that there are people with disabilities who can train hard, who can focus on a goal, and who are determined to achieve that goal.
Over time, however, it has become clear that Paralympic athletes can have a tremendous effect on social issues that impact the broader disability population, in part because of their visibility, but also in part because of the confidence and skill they gain as a result of their participation in Paralympic sport. In time, Access Living and Bristo have come to understand the power of sport in advancing the rights of people with disabilities. In fact, Access Living has twice honored Paralympians at their annual gala for their contributions to the disability community — the cast of Murderball (the documentary about quad rugby), and Tatyana McFadden, who as mentioned previously, successfully sued her school district for the right to compete.
Two-time Paralympian Linda Mastandrea represented the United States seven times in international competition, winning 15 gold and five silver medals during her career as wheelchair track athlete. She set national, world and Paralympic records along the way. Her results included winning gold in the 200m and silver in the 100m at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, where she also set a world and Paralympic record in the 200m. Since retiring from racing in 2000, Mastandrea has had a law practice concentrating on disability issues, and is a motivational and educational speaker and freelance writer and frequent contributor to New Mobility.
Gotta Ditch the Quad