TOKYO – A Paralympic swimmer ended up training in the cold Arkansas River for a while after the coronavirus pandemic cut her off access to a swimming pool.
Another borrowed a swim bench, set it up in her Minnesota garage, and simulated her movements against the resistance of a pulley system. It was the closest she could to propelling herself into the water.
And in Cardiff, Wales, a shot put champion improvised by threading a cargo net between apple and pear trees so he could train safely in the yard of his new home.
Months later, these three athletes – Sophie herzog, Mallory Weggemann and Aled Sion Davies – joined around 4,400 other competitors in Tokyo for the 16th Summer Paralympic Games, which open on Tuesday. Like the thousands of Olympians who competed here a few weeks ago, the Paralympians will be making their way to the pitches, courts and courts a year late, without spectators and under the threat of contagion which, at least by the measure ratings, has tarnished so many other major sporting events over the past year and a half.
The Paralympic Games, however, could be the rare athletic spectacle that achieves significantly higher levels of engagement during the pandemic, ramping up momentum in ways old-fashioned sports cannot. A turmoil generated by multiple blockages, coupled with cultural democratization shaped by social media, has amplified a shift in values and tastes, especially among young people, which emphasizes the neglected and undervalued.
Darlene Hunter, a wheelchair basketball player for the United States who teaches disability issues at the University of Texas at Arlington, recently said that in the five years since the last Paralympics summer, in Rio de Janeiro, she had noticed a growing interest in the Games and a better understanding of them. In the past, she had to regularly explain what the Paralympics meant and her team’s gold medal in 2016 meant.
“People know what it is now,” said Hunter as she prepared to leave for her third Games. “People are talking about it. People hear it like never before.
Significant changes over the past five years include the parity of prize money for U.S. Paralympic medalists, who received one-fifth of what their Olympic counterparts received ($ 37,500 for a gold medal, $ 22,500 for the silver and $ 15,000 for bronze), and expansion of coverage by television and streaming services. This availability has been encouraged to some extent by the decision of the International Paralympic Committee to waive its rights fees in dozens of countries in sub-Saharan Africa and help produce coverage for broadcasters there.
NBCUniversal, the longtime Olympic and Paralympic network in the United States, has committed to 1,200 hours of coverage on its TV channels and streaming platforms, after showing just 70 hours of Brazil in 2016 and five and a half of the London Games in 2012. Included will be the first prime-time coverage of the Paralympic Games on the NBC mainstream, four hours across three flagship shows.
And in another nod to the rise of adapted sports for people with disabilities, the US Olympic Committee has become the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“We have arrived”, Jessica Long, a swimmer who has won 13 gold medals and will compete in her fifth Paralympic Games, told The New York Times when the name change was announced in 2019.
Yet the resources for Paralympians, from media coverage to sponsorship deals, barely come close to what is available to Olympians. Tokyo’s main cavernous press center is a desert these days, and online searches for Paralympic news tend to produce mostly press releases from Games organizers. And while the cash prizes have been equalized for American athletes, some perks have not.
With spectators banned from Tokyo, the USOPC hosted viewing nights in the United States for two relatives or friends per athlete. There were four Olympic rallies, each spanning five days, but only one was scheduled for the Paralympics. After some Paralympians and their family members noted the gap, they said a second night of viewing was added.
The standard to be surpassed for the Tokyo Paralympic Games would be the London Paralympic Games in 2012. Athletes still rave today about the busy and knowledgeable crowds, as well as the spirit of this gathering, fueled in part by Britain’s history as the birthplace of adapted sports and by often cheeky coverage of Channel 4, which outbid the BBC for the rights to the competition.
On the last day of the London Olympics, the alleged main attraction that summer, Channel 4 set up billboards across the city to promote the Paralympics. “Thanks for warming up,” they said.
At the time, people with disabilities made up about 50 percent of the channel’s coverage crew. For the Tokyo Games, the proportion of Channel 4 is estimated at just over 70%.
“They revolutionized British television,” said Craig Spence, communications manager for the International Paralympic Committee. “Before this coverage of London 2012, we didn’t really see people with disabilities in TV programs or in newscasting. Now you do. All the other broadcasters in Britain realized they were on to something. “
This type of acceptance has not always been part of the history of the Paralympic Games, especially when the Soviet Union refused to host a parallel Games to its Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980, apparently after a senior Russian official said there were no invalids in the country. The Paralympic Games moved to the Netherlands that year. Now there is an award winning movie about them.
“Rising Phoenix,” a Netflix documentary that focused on nine 2016 Paralympians, was produced by Greg Nugent, Marketing Director of the London Paralympic Games, and Tatyana McFadden, six-time US Paralympian who is also one of the stars of the film.
Nugent said he made the film in part in hopes of making the Paralympic Games a must-have, rather than an event that could succeed in one city, only to fail four years later in the next.
“I wanted it to be morally impossible for any future organizing committee to essentially judge the Paras to be inferior to the Olympics,” he said.
His concern had been validated in the run-up to the 2016 Games. As political and economic turmoil gripped Brazil, organizers in Rio considered organizing only the Olympics. A government bailout allowed the Paralympic Games to continue, but three weeks before the Games, only 12% of tickets had been sold.
McFadden and Nugent have launched a campaign, called Fill the Seats, to buy Paralympic tickets for Brazilian schoolchildren, with promotional and financial help from Prince Harry and the group Coldplay. In the end, the Rio crowds came together, the Brazilians won 14 gold medals, and the film won two Sports Emmys.
The Tokyo Paralympic Games will start under a very different cloud, and also under a new umbrella.
Thursday evening, just a few days before the opening ceremony, more than 125 monuments around the world, including the rainbow bridge in Tokyo and The empire state building in New York – were bathed in purple, the color that has long represented the disabled community. The display marked the start of a 10-year anti-discrimination campaign led by several organizations, including the International Paralympic Committee.
Called WeThe15, a reference to the estimated 15 percent of the world’s population who have some form of disability, the campaign has formed a coalition of groups who often have very different agendas.
“We have seen other movements like LBGTQ, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement,” Andrew Parsons, IPC president, told The Associated Press last week, “and we need a movement similar for people with disabilities “.