Despite challenges, the Paralympics remain as vital as ever

The games provide a key platform for disabled athletes – but can they get the recognition they deserve?

Daniel Romanchuk of Team United States is seen before competing in the Men's 800m - T54 heat on day 9 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on September 02, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan [Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images]

The Tokyo Paralympics, the 16th such event taking place, started on August 24 and will end on September 5, hot on the heels of the Tokyo Olympics.

Both events had to be delayed by a year due to the ongoing pandemic.

The Paralympics, first known as the Stoke-Mandeville Games, was conceived during the London 1948 Summer Olympics, when a small group of injured servicemen and women participated in a wheelchair archery competition to cater for wounded servicepeople as a result of the second world war.

The link between the Paralympics and the Olympics was formalised in 1960 in Rome, launching the first officially named Paralympics.

A winter version was conceived in 1976, and the Paralympics gradually sought to become genuinely parallel to the main Olympics on an equal footing, with the Seoul Games in 1988 being the first where both events shared venues in the same city.

Cities seeking to host the games also bid for both events as a package, and each has an opening and a closing ceremony. In terms of what is on offer for elite athletes, the Paralympics has in some ways become even bigger than the Olympics, offering nearly 200 more gold medals.

Being part of such a significant sporting brand has enabled the Paralympics to provide a much-needed platform for athletes with disabilities and impairments to showcase their talents at the highest level.

The Paralympics also acts as an anchor for the wider sporting sector, providing support for the various sporting bodies that form part of the sprawling formal and informal ecosystem of grassroots organisations for athletes to be recruited and trained, working years ahead of each Paralympic cycle.

People with disabilities can face considerable practical barriers in their daily lives, let alone as elite athletes.

The added cost of specialist equipment and staffing makes it worse.

A visually impaired athlete has to factor in the cost of hiring a guide, while for a competition-standard racing wheelchair, athletes have to pay between $6,890 and $27,500, a sum that can only be afforded by a few.

According to the sports agency Two Circles, sport sponsorship as a whole is worth $48bn, but para-athletes get only a fraction of that.

They also have fewer opportunities to earn prize money or bag a commercial sponsorship, especially in a non-Paralympic year.

However, this is gradually changing.

Dame Sarah Storey, the United Kingdom’s most decorated Paralympian, with 17 swimming and cycling gold medals, is building her own cycling academies in partnership with Skoda to change the landscape for the next generation of athletes.

The Paralympics, therefore, is a vital vocal catalyst to securing funding from the private and public sectors for the 22 sports currently allowed in the summer event.

Relatively modest viewing figures may worry advocates that the Paralympics has already peaked in visibility.

For the Olympics, after encouraging progress in audience levels for the London and Rio Games, early numbers from NBC and the BBC, flagship Western broadcasters, have been disappointing for Tokyo.

NBC reported 15.5 million viewers, less than half of their 2012 Olympic figures, and the BBC had 36 million viewers, a 13-year low, worse than the previous low of 37.5 million who tuned in to watch the Beijing 2008 Games.

This is despite Japan’s sterling effort to facilitate digital broadcasting, with the public broadcaster NHK providing at least 1,000 hours of free coverage of events.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the Paralympics has been attracting even lower numbers. Fewer than 24 percent of possible Japanese viewers watched the opening ceremony, as opposed to more than 54 percent who watched the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics.

This is due to a range of factors including the increased fragmentation of the media, the time difference for Europe, North and South America, and the disruption caused by the pandemic, which has affected broadcasting schedules and led to a downbeat build-up to the games.

This can potentially spell trouble for the thousands of Paralympians who compete in it, and the millions who are inspired by it, discrediting the influence of the event as a forgotten sideshow for the Olympics.

This is not helped by the fact the Paralympics is a more complex event to organise.

Even before the pandemic, safety had to be paramount to address the range of impairments, including adapting Olympic facilities to ensure they are accessible, with qualified guides where necessary, and providing correct bespoke technology fit-outs for sporting venues.

Tokyo’s recent automated shuttle-bus crash in the athletes’ village, which left a visually-impaired athlete injured, is an example of what can go wrong.

Additional restrictions have been imposed due to the pandemic, including a limit on the numbers allowed in Tokyo. The lack of flexibility has resulted in decisions that may have seemed callous and dispassionate.

The US Paralympic swimmer, Becca Meyers, who is deaf and blind, had to withdraw just six weeks before the games when she was told by Paralympic officials that her mother will not be allowed to accompany her as a personal care assistant (PCA).

Instead, due to COVID regulations, the entire US swimming team had to share one PCA, someone they were not familiar with. The predictable outrage damaged the Paralympics’ image as a place of inclusion and common sense.

Another challenge is the greater potential of cheating that could undermine the sport and the spirit of the games.

In the Paralympics, there are as many as 539 separate events within only 22 sports to ensure fair competition. However, this also opens the door for some to try and fake the extent of their disabilities to participate in certain events and gain an unfair advantage.

In the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, there was a scandal when during the basketball event for the intellectually impaired, 10 of the 12 Spanish basketball players were found to have no disabilities at all.

They were exposed by an undercover journalist, and were eventually forced to return their medals in disgrace.

As a result, the Paralympic Committee temporarily removed all events for athletes with an intellectual disability until the London 2012 Games, depriving hundreds of athletes the chance to compete due to the selfish actions of those who did not have a disability.

The other challenge is the implementation of doping regulations. This can be particularly complicated since some athletes take prescription drugs for medical reasons. This has to be managed through a Therapeutic Use Exemption system to allow a Para athlete to compete.

The wide range of categories also makes it more difficult to do testing.

In the Rio Olympics, 4913 samples were analysed, as opposed to just 1687 samples in the Rio Paralympics, even though there was a slightly higher adverse finding rate in the Paralympics, 0.71 percent as opposed to 0.59 percent.

Despite all the hurdles and risks, there are still some very encouraging signs for the Paralympics.

Millions of Japanese people are watching the Paralympics, providing a new unique opportunity to encourage social inclusion and popularise para-sport in the region.

The current edition is the largest ever, with 4,537 athletes participating, nearly 200 more than Rio in the 2016 and far greater than the original 600 athletes in Rome in 1960.

Paris and Brisbane will host the Paralympics in 2024 and 2028, respectively.

Both are modern and outward-looking cities with a strong commitment to advancing para-sports and should be reliable stewards to further build on the Paralympic movement.

Having a strong Paralympic event can help raise the profile of the many elite para-athletes, as they become new brand ambassadors and continue to be strong role models, advocating social inclusion, educating a wider audience about their often unreported lived experiences and adding to the voices of those not often heard.

Transforming attitudes is still needed, given that people with disabilities continue to face innumerable challenges in society.

Even those competing at the Paralympics – literal superhumans – continue to be discriminated against. This can be best exemplified by former US President Donald Trump openly saying that the Paralympics was “tough to watch” while hosting Paralympians and having previously mocking a disabled reporter.

Thus, it is more important than ever to educate the ignorant about the achievements of the Paralympians.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.