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Sarah Young: Big business is right behind as profiles of London Paralympians rival those of Olympic champions

WITH top athletes competing in front of sold-out stadiums and global television audiences in the millions, the Paralympic Games are starting to look a lot like their able-bodied equivalents -- and big business is right behind.

In Ireland, where our athletes have enjoyed their most successful Paralympics in decades, the event has enjoyed a very high profile -- buoyed by the gold-medal-winning performances of athletes like Jason Smyth, the fastest Paralympian in the world, who bagged gold medals in the 100m and 200m events, and Michael McKillop, who took golds at 1,500m and 800m.

Inspiring gold-medal-winning performances by others, such as hand cyclist Mark Rohan and swimmer Bethany Firth, have captured the imagination of the public and proved that the Paralympics are no longer the 'poor relation' of the Olympics proper.

Although the money for TV rights, ticket sales and athletes' earnings are not on a par with the Olympics, the rapidly growing profile of the Paralympics has now made them a commercial opportunity in their own right. While it took the Olympics the best part of 90 years to evolve into the business they now are, the transformation of the Paralympics is much more swift.

Tickets have sold out for most events at the 14th Paralympics, held in London just weeks after the Olympics, and organisers hope the sale of more than 2.7 million tickets will bring in close to £45m (€56m).

While most of the tickets were available for £10 (€12.50) or less -- compared to the hundreds of pounds charged for many seats at the Olympics -- tickets were often given away in the past, if seats could be filled at all.

A cumulative total of more than four billion people are expected to watch the London Games on television, compared to 3.8 billion for the 2008 Beijing Games and 1.9 billion for Athens in 2004, the Paralympic committee said.

US network NBC is only covering highlights, but the criticism it has faced for limiting coverage itself points to the growing importance of the event.

The higher profile can also be seen in relation to athletes' earnings.

'Blade Runner' Oscar Pistorius, the South African face of the Games, can expect $2m (€1.55m) a year in endorsements from sponsors including Nike and BT, according to research from IMR sports marketing and sponsorship intelligence.

That's a lot less than the $20m (€15.5m) or so estimated for Usain Bolt, the world's fastest man -- but it's more than many able-bodied athletes will get.

The interest in the Paralympics is a far cry from the past. In Atlanta in 1996, workmen began dismantling the Olympic village as the Paralympians were competing.

Much of the demand from companies seeking to associate themselves with the Paralympics through sponsorship came after the success of the London Olympics, said Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world's largest advertising group WPP.

For the first time, the Paralympics also have their own major sponsor. British supermarket Sainsbury paid £20m (€25m) for the right, local media said. The company did not sponsor the Olympics.

It is hard to break down exactly how much sponsorship the Paralympics gets because the organising committee does not give figures.

The Locog local organisers signed around £700m (€875m) in sponsorship for both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

LONG-TERM, however, the growing commercialisation has raised concerns among some followers that it could go too far -- a complaint often made of the Olympics itself.

Among the worries is that it could endanger the more relaxed family feel to the Games that many spectators have praised.

The other big question is whether the commercial success of the Paralympics can be sustained when they move to Rio in 2016.

In Britain, perceptions of disability have progressed to the extent that not featuring Paralympic athletes in advertising campaigns would now be a dangerous strategy, according to Pippa Collett, managing director at Sponsorship Consulting.

But attitudes are changing globally too.

"The appeal of the Games has grown alongside the public appeal and acceptance of Paralympic sport as a high-performance sport," the IPC's Hartung said.

Among countries where broadcasting rights for the Paralympics have been sold for the first time are Iran, Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan, the local organisers said. They did not say how much TV rights made in total.

In Brazil itself, there is every sign that interest will be as great as it has been in Britain.

Brazilian Paralympic athletes are having to spend hours talking to their media after each event and their country has risen to eighth on the medals table, well above countries including France and Italy.

With Brazilian Alan Oliveira as the only man to beat Pistorius in the London games, the prospects look bright.

Irish Independent