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Paralympic spotlight shines only briefly

Ronny Blaschke
August 27, 2021

The Paralympics tend to stimulate and accelerate a debate in host cities about accessibility and participation for people with disabilities. But a legacy that lasts beyond the Games is rare.

Fencing at Tokyo 2020
What will be the legacy of the Tokyo ParalympicsImage: REUTERS

"Sport is the spotlight for people with disabilities." Puffed-up phrases like this are heard from sports officials throughout the Paralympics.  "From tomorrow, Paralympic athletes will start changing the world again," added Andrew Parsons in his speech at the opening ceremony of the 16th edition of the Games on Tuesday.

Speaking to DW, the president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) went further still: "For a long time the Paralympics were in the shadow, but now the Games are a driver for social change." But can social change really be measured?

Since 1988, the Paralympics have been hosted in the same city as the Olympics. Before that, in 1980, Moscow refused to host the Paralympics. The Communist Party did not want the Soviet Union to be associated with disabled people so Arnhem, in the Netherlands, stepped in as a replacement. Four years later, Los Angeles also showed no interest and they were held in New York and Stoke Madeville, in England.

Earlier still, in 1972 in Germany, the Paralympics were held in Heidelberg, rather than Munich. This was because the city did not want to convert the Olympic Village to make it accessible for athletes and block the 3,500 housing units from paying tenants. 

Big talk, but no sustainability

All recent Paralympic venues have seen a debate about physical barriers begin even before the Games itself. Mayors announce the construction of ramps and elevators and sports associations put Paralympic funding models on the agenda. But the sports industry and the media that cover it rarely look back, so there is a lack of legitimate studies on the sustainability of such changes.

Andrew Parsons, IPC President
Andrew Parsons, IPC PresidentImage: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/dpa/picture alliance

London is an exception. In a survey conducted after the 2012 Paralympics, three-quarters of Britons said they now view disabilities more positively. And 80% of respondents with a disability wanted to do more sport in the future. Companies too signaled greater interest in employees with a disability.

Disabilities still a stigma

Findings like these encourage the IPC to reach out to officials and the people of the host city to further their cause. But the reception their message receives varies.

Take Russia, for example. It was only in 2012, two years before the Sochi Winter Games, that the Kremlin ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. For the first time, parliament had outlawed discrimination against disabled people. Oligarchs even offered bonuses to medal winners.

However, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report found that disability is still seen as a stigma in Russia. It also noted that hardly any people with disabilities worked on the joint organizing committee of the Olympics and Paralympics for Sochi. 

As a rule, the growth of Paralympic sport is tied to a country's wealth. Twenty-five countries that have National Paralympic Committees are not represented in Tokyo — mostly smaller nations from Asia and Africa that could not afford the high costs or were set back by political crises. Of the 10 most successful nations in the historical medal table, eight are in Europe and North America, plus China and Australia. As prosperity increases, so does participation in society and sport.

All not as it seems

Indeed, sometimes aspiration and reality are far apart: In Brazil, the constitution has designated two official languages since 1988: Portuguese and the sign language Libras. With an eye to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, one of the world's largest training centers for disabled sports was built. The Brazilian parliament passed a detailed law designed to cater to the needs of disabled people.

But such signposts can be deceptive. In 2018, two years after the Rio Games, an HRW report described how thousands of Brazilians with disabilities are forced to live inhumane lives in institutions. A year later, the right-wing conservative government of President Jair Bolsonaro reversed a system of quota places and subsidies for people with disabilities.

Paige Greco
Paralympic medals are generally won by Europeans, North American, Australian or Chinese athletesImage: Shuji Kajiyama/AP Photo/picture alliance

Parsons is from Brazil, where he led the National Paralympic Committee between 2009 and 2017. He's keen to ensure he does not give the impression that the Paralympics can fundamentally change societies in just a few years.

"But they can be a push," he says. "A lot of people who have never dealt with the issue see on TV what people with disabilities are capable of."

The IPC recently launched a long-term campaign with the United Nations and other international organizations called "WeThe15." The name refers to the 15% of the world's population who live with a disability, about 1.2 billion people. Some of its goals are education, training and the provision of low-cost sports equipment, especially for low-income countries in the global South.

Pictures that change the world?

Parsons hopes TV images from Tokyo will give the campaign a boost. According to the IPC, some 4.25 billion people worldwide will have the opportunity to watch from afar, including, for the first time, 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tokyo also highlights how wide the wealth gap is in the Paralympic world. As a democratically governed industrialized country, Japan has decent conditions for people with disabilities. In Japan, car manufacturers and electrical companies are putting the Paralympics at the center of debates about mobility and health care in an aging society.

But whether social change can keep pace remains in question. "I think when it comes to accessibility as a whole, we are still worse than other rich countries," Takanori Yokosawa, a Japanese member of parliament who participated as a skier in the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, told German newspaper the Badische Zeitung. "Many people are unsure how to deal with people with disabilities. And then they avoid embarrassment simply by being cagey."

Yokosawa also stressed that people with disabilities are disadvantaged in the education system and in the labor market.

Japan did not ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted in 2006, until 2014, and a sophisticated and nuanced anti-discrimination law is still lacking. But at least a debate is underway in Japanese media, academia and business.

From paratrooper to Paralympian: Tim Focken