The Paralympics: The highlight shines solely briefly | Sports activities | German soccer and main worldwide sports activities information | DW
“Sport is in the spotlight for people with disabilities.” Bloated phrases like these can be heard by sports officials during the Paralympics. “Starting tomorrow Paralympic athletes will change the world again,” added Andrew Parsons in his speech at the opening ceremony of the 16th edition of the Games on Tuesday.
In an interview with DW, the President of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) went even further: “For a long time the Paralympics were in the shadows, but now the Games are an engine for social change.” But can social change really be measured?
The Paralympics have been held in the same city as the Olympic Games since 1988. Previously, 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 stepped in as a replacement in the Netherlands. Four years later Los Angeles showed no interest either, and they took place in New York and Stoke Madeville, England.
Even earlier, in 1972, the Paralympics in Heidelberg took place in Munich in Germany. Because the city did not want to convert the Olympic Village for athletes and block the 3,500 residential units for paying tenants.
Big talk, but no sustainability
In all recent Paralympic venues, a debate about physical barriers has started even before the Games themselves. Mayors announce the construction of ramps and elevators and sports associations put Paralympic funding models on the agenda. But the sports industry and media coverage rarely look back, so there is a lack of legitimate studies on the sustainability of such changes.
Andrew Parsons, IPC President
London is an exception. In a poll carried out after the 2012 Paralympics, three-quarters of Britons said they are now more positive about disability. And 80% of the respondents with disabilities wanted to do more sport in the future. Companies also indicated a greater interest in employees with disabilities.
Disabilities are still a stigma
Findings like this encourage the IPC to reach out to officials and the population of the host city to move their cause forward. But the reception your message receives varies.
Take Russia, for example. It was not until 2012, two years before the Winter Games in Sochi, that the Kremlin ratified the UN Disability Rights Convention. For the first time, Parliament banned discrimination against people with disabilities. Oligarchs even offered bonuses to medalists.
However, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that disability is still viewed as a stigma in Russia. Hardly any people with disabilities worked in the joint organizing committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi.
As a rule, the growth of Paralympic sport is tied to a country’s wealth. 25 countries with National Paralympic Committees are not represented in Tokyo – mostly smaller nations from Asia and Africa that could not afford the high costs or were thrown back by political crises. Of the 10 most successful nations in the historical medal table, eight are in Europe and North America as well as in China and Australia. As prosperity increases, so does participation in society and sport.
Everything is not what it seems
In fact, claims and reality are sometimes far apart: In Brazil, the constitution has provided for two official languages since 1988: Portuguese and the sign language Libra. With a view to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, one of the world’s largest training centers for disabled sports was built. The Brazilian parliament has passed a detailed law geared towards the needs of disabled people.
But such signposts can be deceiving. In 2018, two years after the Rio Games, an HRW report outlined how thousands of Brazilians with disabilities are being forced into inhumane lives in institutions. A year later, the right-wing conservative government of President Jair Bolsonaro lifted a system of quota places and subsidies for people with disabilities.
Paralympic medals are usually won by European, North American, Australian or Chinese athletes
Parsons comes from Brazil, where he headed the National Paralympic Committee from 2009 to 2017. He does not want to give the impression that the Paralympics could fundamentally change societies in a few years.
“But they can be a nuisance,” he says. “Many who have never dealt with the subject see on television 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 living with a disability, roughly 1.2 billion people. Some of its goals are education, training and the provision of inexpensive sports equipment, especially for low-income countries in the global south.
Images that change the world?
Parsons hopes TV footage from Tokyo will give the campaign a boost. According to the IPC, around 4.25 billion people worldwide will have the opportunity to watch from a distance, including 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time.
Tokyo also shows how big the prosperity gap is in the Paralympic world. As a democratically governed industrial country, Japan offers decent conditions for people with disabilities. In Japan, automakers and electronics companies are putting the Paralympics at the center of debates about mobility and health care in an aging society.
However, it remains questionable whether social change can keep pace. “I think when it comes to accessibility overall, we are still worse than other rich countries,” Takanori Yokosawa, a Japanese MP who skied in the Winter Paralympics 2010 in Vancouver, told the Badische Zeitung. “Many people are unsure how to deal with people with disabilities. And then they avoid embarrassment simply by holding back.”
Yokosawa also stressed that people with disabilities are disadvantaged in the education system and in the labor market.
Japan did not ratify the UN Disability Rights Convention, passed in 2006, until 2014, and there is still no sophisticated and differentiated anti-discrimination law. But at least a debate is ongoing in Japanese media, academia, and business.