Rio’s tough challenge to make Paralympics work

RESPECT ATHLETES: Former Paralympic glamour boy Oscar Pistorius in action at the 2012 Games in London  Picture: GETTY IMAGES
RESPECT ATHLETES: Former Paralympic glamour boy Oscar Pistorius in action at
the 2012 Games in London

Concern over whether it will be up to task

Twenty years ago, during the closing ceremony of the Atlanta Paralympics, Helen Rollason solemnly told BBC viewers that she felt the athletes had been let down. There were deserted venues, a fractured transport system and a palpable sense of “after the Lord Mayor’s Show”.

For Rollason, a lifelong campaigner for disability sport, it was tantamount to a betrayal, a tacit acknowledgment that the occasion was merely a forgotten postscript once the Olympic carnival had left town.

Rio’s challenge over the next fortnight is to ensure that this sense of neglect is not repeated.

For a city on its knees financially after a successful, if sometimes fraught Olympics, this is no easy proposition.

Organisers were forced to concede last month that just 12% of Paralympic tickets had been sold, triggering a frantic effort to sell the rest at hugely discounted prices so that the city could at least suggest to the world that it cared.

This is what sprinter Jonnie Peacock, such a celebrated gold medallist in London, means when he demands that he and his fellow competitors are shown “respect”.

In 2012, Peacock, David Weir, Ellie Simmonds and the other home-grown emblems of those gilded Paralympics helped draw a combined attendance of 2.7 million people, most of whom left profoundly struck by the nobility of endeavour on display.

It was a watershed, a symbol of the mainstream acceptance that had been the ambition all along.

As the Paralympic movement rolls on to Rio, it carries a conviction that it has come too far, accomplished too much to risk the taint of association with apathetic hosts.

Brazil has shown once already this summer that it is a master of getting it right on the night brinkmanship. These Paralympics, though, are nothing if not a byword for precariousness, with hotel occupancy rates in Rio running at less than 50% and several countries still waiting to receive their travel grants.

There remains the unanswered question, too, of whether many Brazilians fully grasp the essence of what it means to be a Paralympian.

A politically incorrect cover of Brazilian Vogue magazine, with able-bodied actors photoshopped so that one had lost an arm and another was wearing a prosthetic leg, has already stirred outrage among the athletes.

A greater encouragement is the fact that Brazil does have a creditable Paralympic heritage. The country won 43 medals in London, including a gold for Alan Oliveira, whose 200m triumph at the expense of then poster-child Oscar Pistorius formed the most jarring shock of the Games.

Of course, it was nothing like so stupefying as the manner of Pistorius’s subsequent downfall. In Beijing and London, the South African was paraded as the smooth, urbane face of human fortitude, but now finds himself the ultimate pariah after being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

The Paralympic community is hardly lacking, though, in figures to replace him.

Take Tatyana McFadden, perhaps the finest athlete the world has never heard of. In Rio she is attempting to become the first person ever to sweep every event in wheelchair racing, from the 100m to the marathon.

Here is a young woman who, having been born with an underdeveloped spinal cord, spent the first six years of her life abandoned in a Russian orphanage.

In 1994, Debbie McFadden – then commissioner for disabilities at the US Health Department – visited the orphanage and established a connection and inexplicable feeling they were meant to be together.

Deborah adopted Tatyana, brought her to the United States and gave her a new start on life.

Then there is Sophie Hahn, the British runner who has come to dominate her sprint category, establishing a technique of balance that belies her cerebral palsy.

As for a talent such as Mallory Weggemann, where does one even start? The American swimmer was left paraplegic as a consequence of an epidural injection to treat shingles in 2008, but has forged a remarkable career regardless, breaking world records in the pool within a year of her diagnosis.

Peacock, still sporting his shock of peroxide hair, reflects that London was the moment it all changed for him as a Paralympian.

For the first time, he says, he no longer felt patronised, as he fielded as many questions about his training rituals as he did about his journey to become an elite athlete.

He is right, but only up to a point. The joy of any Paralympics is that it constitutes the most exotic and stirringly implausible tapestry of back-stories in sport.

At this year’s US Olympic Summit in Los Angeles, one of the central attractions was Iowa’s Matt Stutzmann, an archer who was born without arms and who has perfected a method of shooting arrows with his teeth. If London propelled the Paralympics to the prominence they deserved, it falls to Rio to try to sustain the momentum. The doubts mount over whether it is equal to the task.

For all the success of a “fill-the-seats” campaign on social media, which has helped push ticket sales beyond the million mark, deeper problems lie beneath, not least in the revelation that hundreds of Paralympic employees have had their contracts terminated because of the Rio committee’s inability to pay their salaries.

Rio is unlikely to demonstrate even a fraction of London’s power in transforming perceptions of the Paralympics, even if some athletes insist that they can cope with performing in an empty stadium.

“It’s not about how full the venues are,” British swimmer Sascha Kindred said.

“It’s about how you embrace the experience as an athlete, about how you make it good for you.”

It is a laudable sentiment, but not one that will do much for the Paralympics in the long term. They can ill afford to be regarded, if they hope to enjoy an equivalence with the Olympics and not a purely subordinate role, as the Games nobody can be bothered with.

At least the International Paralympic Committee can claim to have shown greater backbone on the doping question than its Olympic counterparts in Lausanne.

Confronted with evidence of Russia’s institutionalised drugs racket, it has thrown out all representatives from the country, which garnered 102 medals in London, with no exceptions or provisos.

The language of its leader, Philip Craven, who declared that the Russians had “catastrophically failed” their athletes, stood as an object lesson to Thomas Bach in how to exercise moral leadership.

The issue now is whether these Games can in any way advance the Paralympic cause.

The cuts being made in Rio across transport and accommodation services are alarming, as is the suggestion by the local organising committee that it requires a taxpayer bailout to plug last-minute holes in the budget.

After the wondrous effect that London had in reshaping attitudes to disability, it would be little short of a tragedy if Rio was to represent a retrograde step.

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