At the recent IOC Session in Tokyo, perhaps the most tangible change was that of the Olympic motto – with the inclusion of the word “Together” after the well-known three words of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’.
Though to some this will seem like a footnote, the change reflects the International Olympic Committee’s view that the Olympic Games should be about solidarity as well as high performance.
This emphasis on solidarity fits neatly with the ideals of the International Paralympic Committee, whose vision is to “make for an inclusive world through para sport”. Since 2001, the IOC and the IPC have had an agreement which guarantees that host cities are contracted to organise both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
In light of the inclusion of Together in the Olympic motto, could now be the right time to bring these two events together? This is certainly not an easy question and there are strong arguments both on the pros and cons side. Let’s first look at some argument in favour of a combined event:
- The values of Olympism are not purely about performance, speed, power and agility, but rather more broad values such as excellence, friendship and respect. The Olympic Movement is built around the notion that sport can help build a more united, tolerant and inclusive world, as the change in the motto to include Together clearly reflects. What better way to show these values in action by incorporating para athletes into the biggest sports event in the world?
- The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was the first gender-balanced Games in history. This is a major milestone and, over the years, the Games has provided a tremendous platform for female athletes to shine and attract broader audiences. The same rationale could also be applied to para sport vis-à-vis able-bodied sport. Since it’s initiation, the Paralympics has done a tremendous job of progressing para sport, but it will perhaps never get the same media coverage as the Olympic Games as a standalone event. Combining the two events could enable enhanced coverage of para sport and reduce any connotation of it being a secondary event.
- For a sports event to stand out and resonate with its existing and potential new audiences, there must be a clear positioning. The Olympics has this to an extent, but whether it will continue to do so in the future against big-money World Championships could be questioned. After all, the on-field action for athletes at the Olympic Games is largely the same as in other competitions. Integrating the Paralympics could help the Olympics stand out even further from the crowded sports calendar. Imagine an able-bodied indoor volleyball match followed straight away by a sitting volleyball match, with both able-bodied and para athletes cheering on their teammates as one. The Olympic Games has its unique selling points, but its strongest point could be the complete integration of able-bodied and para sport.
Arguments for combining the events are compelling but – and there is always a but – there are also strong arguments against merging the two events:
- Staging mega events such as the Olympic Games or Paralympic Games is an enormous mission, that takes years of preparation. Holding both events at the same time would be a massive undertaking. The Tokyo Olympics consisted of more than 11,000 athletes from across the world. The Paralympics usually include just under 4,500 athletes – which would mean 40 per cent more competitors. Without significant cuts to the programmes of one, or both, this would require big increases in the surrounding infrastructure and personnel at a time when efficiency in sports events is more desirable than ever.
- The action-packed nature of the Olympics is certainly part of its charm, but a merger would also by nature mean that there would be less time for sports to capture new audiences by telling the stories of their athletes and building anticipation for their events. While the negative impact of this is largely outweighed by the added exposure they receive through the Games, the same may not apply to Paralympic events. By having Paralympic and Olympic events side-by-side, broadcasters and the media would have to make (even more) complex discussions about focusing on certain events, which may lead many to disregard the highlights of the Paralympics in a way that would not be done with it being a standalone event.
- There is also a difference in tone and focus between the two events. While both inspire, the Olympics does it through showcasing elite able-bodied performances, more akin to the sport that fills our TV screens 52 weeks a year – they show feats that the large majority of us simply cannot believe are possible. The Paralympics showcases elite para sport, with added emphasis on resilience and enhancing the understanding of life for those with disabilities. The sporting entertainment is incredible, but there is an added social element which positions the Paralympics somewhat distinctly. Both events make you say ‘wow’, but do so in different ways.
Both the Olympics and Paralympics, despite their strengths, face something of an uncertain future. Both also have almost unrivalled potential, and by showing the spirit of togetherness now entrenched in the IOC’s motto, they can, and will, continue to be much more than just sports events. Is it time to bring these two events together? Let the debate begin.