Thursday 26 April 2018

Rio must not let Paralympians down

British sprinter Jonnie Peacock. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.
British sprinter Jonnie Peacock. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire.

Oliver Brown

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. Deserted venues, a fractured transport system, 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 per cent of tickets had been sold, triggering a frantic effort to sell the rest at discounted prices.

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 2.7million 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 it-will-be-all 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 per cent 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. An insensitive cover of Brazilian Vogue, with able-bodied actors Photoshopped so that one had lost an arm and another was wearing a prosthetic leg, has 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.

There are stars to follow. Tatyana McFadden, perhaps the finest athlete the world has never heard of, 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 St Petersburg orphanage, until Debbie McFadden - then commissioner for disabilities at the US Health Department - visited and established an eye-to-eye connection that convinced her to adopt her.

Then there is Sophie Hahn, the British runner who has come to dominate her sprint category at just 19, establishing a technique of balance and poise 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.

The joy of any Paralympics is in the exotic and stirringly implausible tapestry of back-stories. 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 abruptly terminated because of the Rio committee's inability to pay their salaries. Deodoro Park, which staged the equestrian events at the Olympics, has had to be dismantled altogether.

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 bail-out 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.

So, let the late Helen Rollason's lament about Atlanta's "let-down" serve as a warning. Too much at stake, in these more enlightened times, for the Paralympics to revert to being passed off as second best.


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