While brainstorming for Boston 2024, local bid leaders considered scheduling the Paralympics before the Olympics. It may have been the best idea they had, even if it never made it into any official proposal.
Why? Because with the current order, with the Paralympics following the Olympics by two to three weeks, the Paralympics risk being an afterthought. Or worse.
The Rio Paralympics start Wednesday, and this could be a case of “or worse.”
At least that’s how it looked in mid-August when cuts to the venues, workforce, and transportation plans were announced. Ticket sales were abysmal, hovering around 12 percent. Delays in travel-grant payments by Rio organizers put the participation of athletes from 10 countries in jeopardy. And as the Olympic Games concluded, speculation spread that the Rio organizing committee’s financial troubles might force the cancellation of the Paralympics.
During an Aug. 19 news conference in Rio, International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven told reporters, “Never before in the 56-year history of the Paralympic Games have we faced circumstances like this.”
The Paralympics deserve better, much better. They can offer athletic competition more entertaining and dramatic and honest (in light of the doping-related blanket ban on Russian Paralympic athletes enacted for Rio) than the Olympics.
Through all the dire forecasts, Craven remained optimistic, and his faith appears largely rewarded. The latest from the IPC: The Rio Paralympics expect to go ahead with all 22 scheduled sports and all 161 participating countries, plus a refugee team. And if Rio organizers are to be believed, they have sold 1.5 million of 2.5 million available tickets.
To be fair, whether they came first or second, the buildup to the Rio Paralympics would have been problem-plagued. That’s the reality of staging an international sports event in Brazil. But the depth of the problems should prompt some serious rethinking of when the Paralympics should take place.
Especially considering why the Paralympics are called the Paralympics.
The “para” in Paralympics is short for “parallel.” The Paralympics trace their origins to an organized sports competition between disabled World War II veterans in 1948. The competition took place in London and coincided with the opening of the London Games. The long-term goal was to create a sports event for athletes with disabilities that would parallel the Olympics.
Both the Olympics and Paralympics have grown to a point where truly parallel Games would tax host cities, venues, transportation systems, and TV schedules too much.
The “60-day festival of sport,” as the IPC likes to call the combination of the Olympics and Paralympics, draws roughly 500,000 visitors. Again, too much strain on host cities to combine the competitions, though the bulk of the visitors come for the Olympics.
But there are practical and promotional reasons to move the Paralympics ahead of the Olympics.
The practical: With fewer athletes, countries, and sports involved, staging the Paralympics first would allow the host city to logistically ramp up to the Olympics. Organizers could see how well traffic flows at venues, security checkpoints, and transportation hubs without each system under maximum stress. Same goes for food supplies, signage, bus schedules, etc.
Issues — and there are always issues when the Games start — would be easier to deal with on a Paralympic scale than an Olympic scale.
(Keep in mind, every Olympic/Paralympic Games holds test events in the years preceding the real deal. So, to be clear, the Paralympics would not serve as some kind of trial balloon. As with the Olympics now, organizers would open the Paralympics first with a system they believe is as ready for the masses as possible.)
On the promotional side, the Olympics are a tough act to follow. Nearly three weeks later, the sports world has largely moved on from Rio. Sorry, but that’s the hard truth.
If the Paralympics went first, they would be bigger beneficiaries of years of hype. Imagine sports fans eager to get glimpses inside new venues or Olympic Parks clamoring for Paralympic tickets. Journalists and fans arriving early for the Olympics could see Paralympic competition live.
Watching wheelchair basketball or track and field with blade runners or sled hockey or downhill skiing with visually impaired athletes is thrilling and addictive. And the more people see these sports, the more likely athletes with disabilities will gain greater followings and the Paralympics greater interest.
And, hopefully, Paralympians and the Paralympic movement would enjoy the financial support that comes with all of that, beginning a virtuous cycle.
That echoes some of the thinking behind Boston 2024’s consideration of a Paralympics-first model. John Fish, the bid’s biggest donor and chairman for most of its abbreviated run, believed that putting the Paralympics first would bring more attention to athletes with disabilities and be strategically smart on many levels.
“We thought it would be good because typically the venues are new and the environment is relatively new to hosting that type of event,” said Fish. “So, by having a smaller event first and allowing the Paralympic process to move forward and get notoriety, you can have that buildup.”
Say what you will about Boston’s Olympic bid — with its lack of transparency, hefty price tag, problematic venue sites — the leaders were on the right track with the Paralympics.
So what does the IPC think of a Paralympics-first plan?
“That would never work,” said IPC spokesman Craig Spence. “The Olympics is the best test event for the Paralympic Games. When the Olympics go first, we often iron out a number of the problems with the various functional areas. So, by the time we get to the Paralympics, there are solutions there. We enjoy going second. It’s a model that works really well for us.”
In light of recent events, that sounds surprising (and more than a little politically expedient, given the power and money behind the Olympics and the International Olympic Committee). But despite all the dire warnings about Rio, this year’s Paralympics could finish with the largest television audience to date and rank as the second-most attended (behind London 2012, which sold more than 2.7 million tickets).
Impressive, but all the late cuts and speculation about whether the Rio Paralympics would even take place still make this year seem like a step back after London. And let’s see how full the arenas look and whether actual ratings match predictions.
Whatever happens, resiliency, unflagging optimism, and problem-solving will always be part of the Paralympic movement. Craven likes to talk about how Paralympians “don’t worry about what doesn’t work, they maximize what does.” The buildup to Rio was another example of that motto in action.
But shift that thinking to the competition schedule and consider what it could mean. The current order works, but the Paralympic movement could maximize its impact if its Games came first.