August 2016, No. 2  Vol. LIII, Sport Aims for the Goals

Are the Paralympic Games the world’s number one sporting event driving social inclusion?

What first took place in Rome in 1960, with 400 athletes from 23 countries, has grown into a global phenomenon that brings together the world’s best Para athletes every four years to compete before millions of spectators and billions of television viewers around the world.

In September 2016, the biggest Paralympic Games ever will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: 4,350 athletes from 170 countries will compete in 22 sports. Latin America’s first Paralympics will be broadcast to more than 125 countries, reaching an estimated audience of over four billion people, the largest-ever audience for the Games. In addition, 2,000 representatives of the world’s media will cover the events, sharing news of the outstanding achievements of the Para athletes via radio, print and social media.

As the Games grow in size and scale, their transformational impact on society is also increasing. Over the years, the Paralympics have developed a strong track record for challenging deep-rooted beliefs regarding disability and acting as a catalyst for changing the approach to social inclusion in the countries where the Games are held.

The 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing are a prime example of how the Games can affect a society. The event changed China’s approach and attitude towards disability, making its society more inclusive for the country’s estimated 83 million people living with an impairment. Prior to the Games, the country was less accessible and, in many ways, less hospitable for anyone living with an impairment. Winning the right to host the 2008 Games triggered action by the Chinese Government to improve the lives of people with disabilities and protect their rights as equal members of society. New legislation on accessibility was passed and, in the seven years leading up to the Games, China spent more than $150 million—equivalent to the last 20 years’ investment in accessible infrastructure—on making 14,000 facilities accessible throughout the country. More than $17 million was spent making 60 popular tourist destinations accessible. Elevators and wheelchair ramps were installed along the most popular section of the Great Wall of China, and accessibility was improved at the 600-year-old Forbidden City (Imperial Palace).

China subsequently became one of the first signatories of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, an international human rights treaty that entered into force on 3 May 2008. On 1 July of that year, the amended Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities came into force. It affirms that the State and society must take measures to improve accessible facilities and provide necessary information in order to enable equal participation in social life for people with an impairment.

Thanks to the Paralympic Games, people in China now have a greater awareness of persons with physical impairments. Chinese citizens with an impairment receive more respect and attention. They enjoy a better social status, improved social security, better educational opportunities, easier access to employment and much more.

Today, the Paralympics benefit from more extensive global media coverage than ever before, amplifying the transformational effect the Games can have. By broadcasting the performances of the world’s best Para athletes to billions across the globe, the media contribute to raising awareness about persons with an impairment. This was best exemplified at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, which, during the Closing Ceremony, I proclaimed as the best Paralympics ever.

Before the Games, the United Kingdom was already considered one of the world’s leading nations for promoting equality, and I think few people, including myself, foresaw the seismic impact that 12 days of Paralympic sport would have.

The British broadcaster, Channel 4, which rightly won multiple domestic and international awards for their outstanding coverage of the Games, helped our cause considerably. It recruited a new generation of presenters and reporters who had an impairment to play key roles in their broadcasts. The channel spent $1.2 million searching for, recruiting, training and developing the skills of media professionals to ensure that half of the on-screen talent during the Games consisted of persons living with an impairment. This helped set the tone for a number of matter-of-fact discussions about disability.

Channel 4 also produced a stunning, 90-second television commercial ahead of the Games that helped enormously in cutting through public indifference towards Paralympic sport. The commercial, entitled “Meet the Superhumans”, mixed bold and arresting close-up imagery of athletes in training and competition with scenes that helped tell some of the extraordinary back-stories of the athletes. Set to a soundtrack by the band Public Enemy, the advert had swagger and scale, making Paralympic athletes cool like never before. The video probably did more in 90 seconds to change attitudes towards Paralympic sport than the last 20 years of work put together.

Once the Games started, viewers were transfixed. More than 40 million people—two thirds of the British population—watched the Games on Channel 4. Each day, the sporting performances were front- and back-page news in print media, with coverage on multiple pages in between. According to the London 2012 post-Games report, the overwhelmingly positive coverage led to one in three people in the United Kingdom, or 20 million residents, changing their attitudes towards people with a disability. Globally, the London 2012 Paralympic Games were watched by a television audience of 3.8 billion people, providing a rock-solid foundation for the continued growth of the Paralympic Movement.

There can be no argument that the 2012 Paralympic Games produced incredibly positive results, not just during the Games but prior to them and afterwards. The legacy of the Games continues to deliver to this day and will continue to do so for many generations to come.

Following on that success, the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games were held in Sochi, Russian Federation. Whereas the Winter Games are usually smaller in size than the Summer Games, they still provide a wonderful showcase of sport. Notwithstanding concerns about sustainability and human rights ahead of the Games, the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics helped Russia become a more inclusive society.

It should be remembered that, prior to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics turned down the opportunity to stage the Paralympic Games. The selection of Sochi in 2007 as host city of the 2014 Games prompted Russian authorities and the society as a whole to pay more attention to the issue of inclusion and create environments that were accessible to people living with an impairment. New legislation benefiting such people was passed, and the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee oversaw the creation of a barrier-free infrastructure, ensuring that every facility built for the Games was accessible to all. Sochi now serves as a model for the rest of Russia, with 200 cities already using what was created for the Games as a guide for furthering accessibility. Today, the lives of millions of Russians are being improved and enriched as a result of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

Ahead of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, close to $1 million is being spent on making many of the city’s major tourist attractions accessible. The entrances to 10 popular Rio locations, including Sugarloaf Mountain, Corcovado and Copacabana Beach, will be resurfaced with approximately 4,000m2 of accessible pavements and 5,831m² of concrete. New transportation infrastructure built for the Games is also accessible for all, underlining how winning the right to stage the Paralympic Games can be a starting point for transforming a city.

In addition, one year ahead of the Rio 2016 Games, the Brazilian Government has passed new legislation that will improve the lives of the country’s almost 50 million people with an impairment. The Inclusion of People with Disabilities Act eliminates accessibility barriers in transport, housing, services, education, sport and the exercise of citizenship. The law increased the amount that will be spent on Para sport from the gross revenues of the federal lotteries, from around $26 million to $49 million per year.

My hope with Rio and every city that will stage the Games in the future—Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea in 2018; Tokyo, Japan, in 2020; and Beijing, China, in 2022—is that they follow the example of Barcelona, Spain. One of the biggest legacies of the Paralympic Games held there in 1992, nearly a quarter of a century ago, is that the city has continued making accessibility improvements. Today, Barcelona is one of the most accessible cities in Europe for people of all abilities; this may not have been the case had the city not hosted the Paralympics.

As we approach the fifteenth Paralympic Games in Rio, I am confident that they will be the best ever in terms of athletic achievement. Thanks to the ever-improving performances by the participating athletes, interest in Para sport continues to grow, and the social and cultural impact of the Games expands.

The majority of Para athletes are now full-time sport professionals who benefit from high-performance training programmes on a par with their Olympic counterparts. This has resulted in an improvement in standards across all sports. By showcasing the power of the human spirit and what can be achieved by testing the body to its absolute limits, Paralympic sport is rendering old stereotypes of disability obsolete.

Para athletes are ambassadors of change. Their performances inspire and excite the world and redefine for many people what is humanly possible. No other event can empower individuals through social inclusion and societal opportunity like the Paralympic Games. Likewise, no other event can change the views of so many millions of people or stimulate Governments to create investment programmes or pass new legislation that will benefit many generations of individuals with impairments.

This is why, in my view, the Paralympic Games are the world’s number one sporting event for social inclusion, helping to promote the rights of persons with disabilities.

Enjoy the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.