Give the Paralympics the status they deserve

Canada’s wheelchair racer Brent Lakatos competes in Round 1 of the men's 100-meter T53 at the Paralympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Sept. 9 2016 (Photo: Simon Burty/OIS,IOC via AP)

Four years ago in London, when the final fireworks fizzled out at the Paralympic Games closing ceremony, the hope was that the 2012 showcase had elevated the competition to a level from which it would continue to grow.

The country that had birthed the Paralympics in 1948 had sold a record 2.7 million tickets, a million more then Beijing four years earlier, and the hope was Brazil, a country of 200m — many of whom understand only too well what it is like to exist on the periphery of society - would embrace the Games wholeheartedly.

Regrettably, budget cuts by the organizing committee, last-minute venue switches and general scampering for money left this month’s Paralympics fighting for recognition. Last month, after organizers revealed only 12 per cent of an already reduced 2.5m tickets had been sold, the event was described by one media outlet as "the Forgotten Games”. Such criticism prompted a crowdfunding campaign aimed at raising money to buy tickets for poor Brazilian children.

Within two weeks, the #FillYourSeats campaign had raised more than $200,000, helping take the total number of tickets sold to more than 1.7m - the same as Beijing, but with two weeks of competition remaining in which to sell more. On Thursday night, as Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias won his 16th medal, the packed crowd inside the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre erupted in scenes that brought Craig Spence, the International Paralympics spokesman, to tears.

Full arenas not only benefit the organizers, the sponsors and the ever-important rights-holders, but also enable the Paralympians to be fully appreciated at a time when questions are being asked about why the Games are sometimes viewed as less significant.

For the Opening Ceremony, Google Doodles ran a Paralympic theme all day, but have not integrated the competition into its search engine as it did the Olympics. Same story with Twitter, which revived some emojis, but did not bother with the ever-popular Hashflags used so successfully last month. SportTV, the local Brazilian broadcaster, provided 16 channels during the Olympics, but have returned to regular coverage this month.

It is like the Olympics were a tailored three-piece suit and the Paralympics are a rent-a-tux: It looks like the real deal from afar, but lift the lapel and the loosening threads suggest the seams could split at any minute. The original commitment is no longer apparent.

Yet to suggest the Paralympics are any less important than the Olympics is akin to suggesting women’s sport is less important than men’s. It is not as popular, not as widely watched, and the best athletes at this month’s Paralympics cannot be compared with the best on show at last month’s Olympics. But that is no reason to dismiss it. In reality, it is a reason to champion it.

The Paralympics are a celebration of overcoming immense challenges and never losing belief; acknowledging the talents and strength of people with physical or mental impairments. The Games are about inclusion, improving self-confidence and social awareness. Using sport to change mindsets and attitudes; to help improve facilities and create opportunities.

A wander through the Paralympic Village not only presents examples of the strength of the human body and the human psyche, but also the importance of human recognition — there are no hard-luck stories here; only proud athletes ready to produce their best for the world to watch.

And watch, the world must. A successful Paralympic Games is far more significant to the betterment of the world than a successful Olympic Games; the consequences far wider-reaching. When the fireworks fizzle out once more on September 18, the hope is that the focus on disabilities does not disappear too.

Ticket sales will not match London, but the early indicators in Rio are there is enough interest and excitement being generated to ensure the success the Paralympians deserve. For these oft-called 'superhumans', the early fear surrounding a Forgotten Games was just another challenge to successfully overcome.

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