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Opinion | The Olympics might be over, but Rio needs to deliver on its Paralympic promises

So once again the experts got it right. It may have gone too close to the wire for comfort, but when it really mattered, Rio delivered as an Olympic host city. Once the cameras started to roll, Rio gave the world unforgettable images and indelible memories of some great sporting moments.

Crowds may have been disappointing at many venues, street robbers did not declare their own Olympic truce, a media bus was shot at and a diving pool changed colour. But on the balance sheet the positives outweighed the negatives.

Now the show moves on to Tokyo, leaving Rio to deal with the financial aftermath and find ways of parlaying its time in the spotlight into lasting benefits for its citizens, a tough call in a country facing difficulties on many fronts. But Rio has some unfinished business.

When the city won the right to host the world in 2016, it signed off not only on the Olympic Games, but the Paralympic Games, which are scheduled for September 7-18. The IOC has an agreement with the International Paralympic Committee to share the same host cities – a sensible decision on economic grounds and because the proximity and halo effect should be a promotional driver for the Paralympics. The host city contract applies to both events and is not some sort of addendum to be ignored.

So the last-minute decision by the Rio Local Organising Committee to make cost-cutting changes to some services and venues was bound to cause consternation among IPC members and athletes who have trained hard to compete against the best in a world-class competition.

While a financial blockage affecting travel grants for competing teams was dealt with relatively quickly, the fact that it became an issue only weeks before the opening ceremony seems inexcusable. Then, with the Olympics in full flow and providing a neat distraction, came the news that elements of the Paralympics were to be scaled down due to tightened fi nancial circumstances. No wonder IPC president Sir Philip Craven lamented: “Never before in our 56-year history have we faced circumstances like this.”

There’s never a way of entirely burying news of this sort, but had it been announced ahead of the Olympics when the media was on high alert for stories of organisational cock-ups, the damage to Rio’s reputation would have been far greater. The issue here is one of perception, because in Paralympic sports perception is particularly important.

London 2012 saw the Paralympic Games hit a new level of popularity and relevance. London was followed by the Sochi Paralympic winter Games, which were also considered a major success. Together these Games had seen Paralympic sport take a massive step forward. It’s an issue discussed in detail in a special feature in this issue (see page 52), but essentially turns on the growing acceptance of the Paralympic Games as elite sport in its own right, rather than an add-on to the Olympics for people with impairments.

The Paralympics are not just about sport – they are about a Movement with the specific goal of changing the way society relates to people with impairments and promoting inclusivity and equality of opportunity. Above all, it is about changing attitudes, both among the public in general and, one suspects, disabled people themselves, who take inspiration from Paralympic athletes. And that is why it is so important that the Paralympics are seen as the equal of the Olympics. It was important that the momentum was maintained at Rio and by accepting the role of hosts, the organising committee accepted a part in achieving that.

 

Then reality kicked in. At the time of writing, only 12 per cent of tickets for the Paralympics had been sold, creating a further financial shortfall. When that happens, cuts have to be made where they will have the least impact. The problem is that the last-minute nature of cuts to areas like venues, transport and media services sent out the wrong messages, and made it feel as though, having delivered on the Olympics, the Paralympics were a bit of an inconvenience. The organising committee is full of hard-working people battling against extreme financial circumstances and the cuts shouldn’t be seen as a reflection of their personal approach or capabilities, but the perception is what it is.

While we can hope that the changes won’t significantly impact on athletes or media coverage of the Games, an even bigger concern is that a last-minute explosion in ticket sales (or a successful give-away campaign) fails to materialise. Anybody who works in sports TV will tell you that the crowd plays a major part in creating a positive experience for viewers – not least because a big crowd screams: ‘YOU ARE WATCHING SOMETHING IMPORTANT!’

The nightmare for the IPC is that Rio will be played out against near-empty stands and that this image of apparent disinterest is the one which will be screened around the world, undoing much of the good work which has gone before. It may be a cliché, but failure can’t be considered an option. This unfinished business simply has to be concluded successfully.

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