On September 7th the Rio Paralympic Games get under way, and disabled athletes from all over the world will begin competing to be the best that they can be, hopefully winning medals along the way. As the world watches I wonder how many sports fans will ask themselves a very important question, "why does the Paralympics still exist?" I don't mean I want to see the end of disabled people having the opportunity to excel in sports but I do wonder why there are two parallel events, the Olympics and the Paralympics. Why in the 21st century do we still have two separate sporting events based entirely on whether you are disabled or not?
In 2012 I was lucky enough to perform in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony and then to present from the wheelchair rugby. My job presenting led me to watch every one of the rugby matches and to witness the skill and dedication of those taking part, and the excitement of this high octane sport. I interviewed many disabled and non-disabled audience members, especially younger ones, who were almost exploding with pride and excitement after witnessing what disabled people can achieve. I met competitors from all over of the globe that were driven by the desire to disprove what most people think of when they hear the word "disabled". Of course they were hugely proud to represent their country and were desperate to win too, but they all hated the stereotype that is conjured by the word disabled just as much. Yet they were all competing in an event that reinforces the idea that disabled people are different.
The Paralympic Games started life in 1948 at Stoke Mandeville hospital, formally becoming the Paralympics in 1960. Since 1988 the Paralympic Games began being held parallel to the Olympic Games, with the International Paralympic Committee being formed in 1989. From it's outset it has aimed to allow disabled people to excel in sporting activity and highlight what is possible with an impairment. A wonderful aim. As the years passed the disabled competitors grew in skill and talent until today we see a point where so called para-athletes are at a level that equals their non-disabled counterparts. If both the Olympics and the Paralympics have reached a par of world class sport why is it that are still held as two separate games? Surely nothing would prove that disabled people are equal to non-disabled people like having them competing side by side in one inclusive global sporting event?
I spend much of my life working towards equality and inclusion for all, but obviously my area of special interest is disability. I campaign and work professionally as an access and inclusion consultant and trainer working with national and local government bodies, charities, non-profits, social enterprises and businesses, as well as with individuals, and everyone of them wants to find a way to become more inclusive. Some of this drive has it's roots in those involved seeing the Paralympic Games and feeling it is time to treat disabled people equally. Yet the games are kept separate on the very grounds I work with people to change. Whether people are disabled or not. Of course sport is built on ability, but surely at this level a racer is as skilled and talented whether they use legs, wheels or blades? Nothing would say that all competitors, disabled or not, were of equal standing than having them take part in one inclusive games. I don't mean wheelchairs racing against runners or even those on blades against those on legs, but why have a two week break between the events and call them something different? Why not have the 100m sprint for leggies, then for those on blades and for wheelchair users all on the same day?
I also strongly feel it would raise the profile of disabled athletes. I doubt that fans would take their seats for a day of their favourite sports only to jump up and leave every time disabled competitors readied to take compete. Great sport is great sport, and national pride would trump any feelings about disability. When I worked at the "sell out" 2012 Paralympics many of the rugby matches took place in an empty arena. One of the big reasons for this is just how hard it is for disabled people to travel. Flying is always difficult, and finding accessible hotels is a nightmare. If we had a single combined games this might not change, but I expect that non-disabled fans of rugby would also love to see their home team in the wheelchair rugby. So events would gain wider audiences.
This also goes for media coverage. In the UK it was only the 2012 games that finally got the air time it deserved, thanks to Channel 4. In the rest of the world Paralympic sports get very little coverage at all. A single combined games would mean that all the media industry infrastructure would be there anyway, to cover those pesky non-disabled types, and so it would prove easier to get a more air time for disabled competitors. Especially if a country's team was doing well. I am positive that combining the Olympics and Paralympics would create a truly inclusive event and would get more people to see the various sports, both in person and via the media, ensuring the we begin to see disabled people becoming global celebrities on a par with Usain Bolt and Mo Farrah.
I won't mention the financial fiasco of Rio, but with the cost of holding the two games growing exponentially creating a single inclusive event should create savings, allowing more countries to bid to hold this new combined Olympics. More inclusive, better for fans, gaining a wider audience and cheaper? I really think combining the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a choice that allows everyone to win. I wonder, what do you think?
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