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Why do we hold separate Paralympic and Olympic Events?

By news editor, on 17 August 2012

 By Ruth Somerville, Leonard Cheshire Disability

“We’ve had the biggest marketing campaign in the station’s history for the Paralympics. And the viewer response? I’ve never seen anything like it! ” Dan Brooke, Director of Marketing and Communications, Channel 4

You can see it in the near sell-out ticket figures, on the advertising billboards, and in the headlines about ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius competing at the Olympic Games. 2012 has seen the Paralympics – originally founded as a completely separate, or ‘parallel’ Games – race towards the mainstream.

At UCL’s  ‘Why do we hold separate Paralympic and Olympic Events?’(13 August), there wasn’t a spare seat in the room. I had gone because, like many people mystified by the complexities of Oscar Pistorius’ Olympic bid (and because I work for a disability charity), I really, really wanted to find out definitively what a ‘combined’ Games actually means.

With a brilliantly chosen panel of experts covering everything from logistics (Mark Dyer, London 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority) to broadcasting (Dan Brooke, Channel 4) to sports and disability theory (Dr P David Howe of  Loughborough University, and Professor Nora Groce of UCL), I had very high hopes for enlightenment…

From the start two things were clear; a seismic identity shift seems to be underway at the Paralympics, and each speaker has major (and very different) issues with combining the two events.

David Howe, a former Paralympian and Senior Lecturer in Anthropology of Sport, kicked off with: “If this debate is a reflection of the exploits of the ‘blade runner’ then this is problematic. Commercialisation has shaped Paralympians’ bodies. At first people with impairments had a lot more opportunities, but now those who don’t fall into the ‘blade runner’ model are marginalised.”

For Mark Dyer, the ODA’s accessible transport manager, the major issue was (naturally) logistical; with 7,000 Paralympic athletes, separate and tailored venues (e.g. the aquatics centre), and just 1,000 wheelchair accessible hotel rooms in the whole City, combining the Games would – at this stage – be practically  impossible.

In fact, he said; “I can’t think of a city in the world that could support [that] event”, which posed the question, how would poorer countries be able to bid for a combined games?

For Professor Groce, Director of the UCL Leonard Cheshire Disability and Inclusive Development Centre, a major issue was: “Theoretical. What do we mean? Whose decision is it – the Olympics Committee? Will people with disabilities have a right to decide where to participate?”

Meanwhile Dan Brooke (who, as part of  Channel 4, has clearly pulled out all the stops for the Paralympics giving it four times the airtime (400 hrs) than has been allocated before) said that the problems of combining the two events were not ‘insurmountable’ – for broadcasters.

He had reservations about the impact for the “unique identity” of the Paralympics, but, “If the two Games could be combined without inequalities, it would be something to aspire to.”

And with that ‘if’ came the rub, because as Professor Groce pointed out – sparking off the subject of  discussion for the rest of evening – elite sport relies on the ‘feeder system’ of everyday access to sport. If disabled people’s participation in sport is half that of the general population, and people have difficulty even accessing their local gym, shouldn’t this inequality be addressed?

Towards the end of the evening, Mark Dyer raised, for me, the key concern. There will be a surge of interest from Channel Four’s exemplary coverage, and yet there won’t be the opportunities for disabled children to access sports on the ground. “If you don’t get them when they’re inspired, you’ll lose them forever.”

Although I didn’t go home with a clearer sense of what a combined Games would actually look like, my head was spinning with new insights, concepts and – above all – questions.

Ruth Somerville is a Press Officer at Leonard Cheshire Disability. Her views are personal.

Image: Paralympics Wheelchair Basketball Tournament in WhyOhGee’s Flickr Stream. (Licensed via Creative Commons)

Find out more about UCL’s programme of events and exhibitions to mark the Olympics and Paralympics 

Watch the full lecture below:


Listen to the event audio on UCL Soundcloud:

Other information

  1. Leonard Cheshire Disability are currently running an Exercise Your Right campaign, campaigning to make sure that sport and exercise is something everyone in the UK can take part in. The campaign is urging disabled people across the UK to survey access at their local gym and report back on what they find.
  2. Motivation is an international development charity supporting people with mobility disabilities. They provide a range of work and services, including a low cost sports wheelchair range and the development of a racing wheelchair in partnership with the International Paralympic Committee
  3. Channel 4 have launched their new Paralympics website in advance of their Paralympic Games coverage which will start in earnest on Wednesday 29 August

2 Responses to “Why do we hold separate Paralympic and Olympic Events?”

  • 1
    des wrote on 17 August 2012:

    marvellously captures the evening – which for me was rather disappointingly a more questions than answers event

  • 2
    Cath Dean wrote on 21 August 2012:

    Lots of people noted that this event ended with a discussion about the role of people with disabilities in Civil Engineering.

    For anyone interested in talking about this further, the Royal Academy of Engineering are hosting a series of free events in early September, showcasing engineering innovation in disability sport: http://www.raeng.org.uk/events/

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