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How the Paralympic Games Have Changed Society: The Past Paralympic Games and Their Legacies

In recent years, the Paralympic Games has been a transformative event for many a host city, helping drive these societies to become more inclusive for everyone. In a time when the significance of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has been called into question, it seems important to discuss the legacies of the past Paralympic Games.

A Nation Adopts the Paralympic Mentality
2012 - London Paralympic Games

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games is using as its model the London 2012 Paralympic Games, which is known as the most successful Paralympic Games of all time. The key to their success had been the many opportunities provided to UK residents in terms of experiencing the “Paralympic mentality.”

First, education. In the lead-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the UK launched “GetSet,” an educational program for schools from kindergarten to high school, in which students would participate in Olympic- and Paralympic-related classes and workshops. Children who learned about the Paralympic Games through the “GetSet” program told their parents about it, thereby providing adults an opening into the world of the Paralympic Games. This so-called “reverse education” process is said to have been a major driver behind the success of their Paralympic Games. The “GetSet” program was implemented in 26,300 schools, and has been ongoing even after London 2012.

The UK has continued its Paralympic efforts even after London 2012, for example by hosting events like National Paralympic Day, where people can participate in parasport workshops

The media was also a major factor. The public TV network Channel 4, a major broadcaster for London 2012, hired people with impairment as presenters, reporters, and production staff. They spent a total of 150 hours during the games, and 500 hours total, broadcasting live footage from the Paralympic Games, as well as relevant shows and features. They also released creative ads that raised public awareness of para-athletes as true top athletes, helping bolster their social standing.

Indeed, one in three adults (approximately 20 million people) in the UK responded in a survey that their attitude towards people with impairment had changed as a result of the Paralympic Games. Two in three said that they had started looking at people with impairment differently as a result of the Paralympic Games.

These long-term efforts by educational institutions and the media have also resulted in major changes with regards to the employment of people with impairment. A 2019 survey showed that 4.2 million people with impairment, aged 16-64 years old, were employed—an increase of 1.3 million from 2013, which indicates an increase of 100,000 to 300,000 people per year. The Paralympic Games had resulted in the realization of a more inclusive society.

Accessibility, Transformed
2008 - Beijing Paralympic Games

China, rather famously, had not put much effort into accessibility (barrier-free environments) prior to the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. It was even said at the time that the 83 million people with impairment in China had been “left behind” by the rest of Chinese society.

An American Paralympic swimmer who participated in a tour going around the Great Wall of China, etc., a year before Beijing 2008

This would change dramatically, however, with the announcement of Beijing 2008.

They did this first through a seven-year program of large-scale accessibility improvements. According to reporting from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), China spent an unprecedented 124 million euros on the program, making large-scale improvements in approximately 14,000 locations, from gymnasiums to be used in the Paralympic Games to roads throughout China, public transportation systems, public facilities, hotels, and even major tourist landmarks like the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City.

That wasn’t all. On July 1, weeks away from Beijing 2008, the government passed a revised law meant to bolster the rights of people with impairment. The revision was meant to improve social security and employment for people with impairment, and drive improvements in accessibility, so that people with impairment could participate in society at an equal level. This new law, which included a provision that would allow visually-impaired people to enter public spaces with their guide dogs, was a significant first step towards the driving of change in China.

The Birth of a Volunteer Movement, and Educational Programs
2014 - Sochi Paralympic Winter Games

This dizzying change in China occurred mainly through structural changes. In Russia, however, this change, spurred by the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, emerged in more cultural ways.

Philip Craven, IPC President at the time, shaking hands with President Vladimir Putin of Russia (right) at the Opening Ceremony of Sochi 2014

One of the most important legacies of Sochi 2014 was the birth of the volunteer movement in Russia—what is said to be the first in the country’s history. In the lead-up to Sochi 2014, a total of 26 volunteer centers were established in 14 regions to serve as volunteer training bases. The approximately 2,800 Paralympic-related projects that were implemented by 2012 would not have been possible without these volunteers.

One of the areas in which the volunteers made an immense contribution was the establishment of an interactive website (accessibility map). Volunteers for this project combed through things like sports facilities and sidewalks to find “barrier-free” spots like parking lots with wheelchair spots, facilities accessible to people with visual impairment, elevators for wheelchairs, etc., and organized these all into a convenient list. There are now accessibility maps for 200 cities in Russia, modeled off of this original one for Sochi.

Inheriting the Legacies
2016 - Rio Paralympic Games
2018 - PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games

The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games inherited all of these legacies.
Let’s first take a look at the Rio Paralympic Games.

A volunteer kissing the Brazilian flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Paralympic Games

In terms of accessibility, the Rio Paralympic Games resulted in the barrier-free redesigns of mainly public locations and tourist landmarks, as well as a million-euro effort to pave roads, install ramps, implement tactile paving for people with visual impairment, and more. There was also progress with regards to laws and regulations, with a new law passed that promised to remove barriers in the realms of public transport, housing, services, education, sports, and the exercising of civil rights.

Also of note were the “numbers” in terms of the media. The Rio Paralympic Games were broadcast in 154 countries and regions, and watched by more than 4.1 billion people—an increase of 7% compared to the 3.8 billion people that watched the London Paralympic Games. The total number of broadcast hours was close to 5,110, which was also more than in the Beijing and London Paralympic Games.

Within Brazil, the Paralympic Games were broadcast for 247 hours, to a total of 472 million viewers. Watching the Paralympic Games on TV had resulted in changes in many Brazilians’ attitudes towards impairment and people with impairment. Indeed, accessibility seemed to have been improved even further for the Youth Parapan American Games, which were held in Sao Paulo in 2017, leading some athletes to speak to the legacy of Rio with regards to the improvements. This tournament was supported by some of the same volunteers who had supported the Rio Paralympic Games. And according to reporting from IPC, the employment rate of people with impairment increased by 49% after the Rio Paralympic Games, as compared to 2009, when Rio 2016 was first announced.

The PyeongChang Paralympic Winter Games, held in Korea, also resulted in major improvements in accessibility throughout the country. The PyeongChang 2018 Organising Committee established an “Accessibility Recognition Programme” and devoted significant energy towards improving accessibility not just for transport, but for equipment, fixtures/amenities, furniture, and more. They also promoted these efforts by offering accessibility certification for accommodation facilities, restaurants, etc., with superior accessibility.

Volunteers at PyeongChang 2018 smiling and taking commemorative photos

The Paralympic Games have a history of fostering change in the host country’s customs, morals, and laws, and have, in the past, even transformed the very structures of society. Tokyo will be the next stage for the Paralympic Games.

text by TEAM A
photo by Getty Images Sport

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