Are the Paralympics Changing Social Attitudes?

16 September 2016

Most of us are familiar with the Paralympic Games. We know that it's an international multi-sport  event; we're aware that it was specifically created for the participation of top athletes with a disability; and we've heard of the likes of  Ade Adepitan  and  Tanni Grey-Thompson , to name just some of its inspirational ambassadors in the public eye. Occurring in the same year as the Summer and Winter Olympics, the name is tossed around in the media every two years, imbuing us with a sense of pride as we hear about victories of our top para-athletes.

Have we ever paused to wonder what these Bronzes, Silvers and Golds actually mean for those taking part and for society as a whole?

The Paralympics have come a long way since the first in 1960, when 400 athletes (at the time, only War Veterans) from 23 countries competed. Governed by the IPC – the International Paralympic Committee – the event has blossomed in size, range and reputation , now boasting over 4000 participants from more than 160 countries.

Logo of the IPC - the non-profit global governing body for the Paralympic Movement

This year, the Summer Paralympics are taking place in the city of Rio de Janeiro, kicking off the 7th September and continuing until the 18th. To be involved in any of the 528 medal events across 22 different sports, competitors must possess a disability, which can fall into various categories: for example, impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, limb deficiency, or leg length difference. Compared to London 2012, Rio 2016 has seen a 9.9% increase in the number of women taking part. Also, a 12% increase in the range of medal events available to them, including athletics, cycling and swimming. The range of summer sports has also increased generally, with canoe and triathlon included for the first time, each staging six medal events and evenly split between the genders.

With a powerful legacy to build on, following the success of London 2012, the pressure is on for Rio 2016 to provide a memorable backdrop to the achievements of para-athletes at the top of their careers and to further the growth of the Paralympic movement. We asked Paralympic swimming champion and motivational speaker Marc Woods , who has been commentating for Channel 4 from the Brazilian city, to share his thoughts about the Games so far. Check it out!

Marc Woods is a motivational speaker and Paralympic swimming champion

Hi Marc. We hope you're enjoying your time in Rio as a commentator for Channel 4!

You've attended previous Games - how has London 2012 set a precedent for this year's Paralympics?

Of the 7 Games I have attended (Rio is my 8th), the London Paralympics was, at the time, by far and away the best. Its success can be measured in many different ways. It had the greatest number of athletes competing, the most tickets sold generating £35m, fabulous venues, efficient transport and passionate volunteers. What was most impressive for me was that the enthusiasm and energy wasn’t simply contained within the sporting venues - it felt like the whole nation was behind the Games!

London 2012 inspired a new generation of athletes who we are now seeing in Rio and beyond, but by far its greatest legacy is the impact it has had on the nation's perception of disability. This ability to influence social change is the greatest strength of the Paralympics, as the athletic brilliance on display encourages the spectator to celebrate what individuals can do, rather than focus on what they can’t.

What are your hopes for Rio 2016? Do you think it will match this legacy?

The shaping of social change will manifest itself in different ways from nation to nation. After all, when it comes to equality amongst different minority groups each country is different. My hope for Rio is that we continue to attract more people to the power of Paralympic Sport, and my role, as a commentator for Channel 4, is to help with that process.

You’re a Paralympic gold medallist. What does it take to be a Paralympian champion?

This is a big question and there isn’t a short answer! So many things impact your ability to achieve your potential as an athlete. Focus, determination, teamwork, the ability to listen to listen to feedback, and of course hard work. If I had to pick one thing which had the biggest influence on my career, it would be resilience. Sport (in fact, life generally!) has a habit of knocking you down. It is personal resilience which enables the great athletes to get back up quickly.

What did you learn on a personal level?

To measure myself against my own potential.

Any favourite Paralympic moments?

The best moment in my career was winning the gold in Sydney. It was an extremely tough time for me as my father had passed away just a few days earlier, and this made the success even more important to me.

Outside of my career, I would have to say the way the British people rose to the occasion when the Paralympics were in London - a huge highlight!

What are your hopes for future Games after Rio has ended?

I hope that Paralympics GB are able to continue to be a force for positive social change within the UK and that the International Paralympic Committee continues to build on the momentum the Games has generated so far.

The Gold standard for the Paralympics was set very high by London 2012, and Rio has topped this, but my hope is that the viewing public can put aside some of these comparisons and enjoy the sporting action.

Finally, by hosting the Paralympic Games, I hope that Brazil will also further progress their perceptions of people with disabilities.

Thanks, Marc. We look forward to the closing ceremony on the 18th!

So far, this year's Games have surpassed London 2012 in terms of number of Golds won by British Paralympians: Dame Sarah Storey and Karen Darke  won road cycling time trials in their respective classifications; Kadeena Cox set a world record of one minute 0.71 seconds to win the T38 400m; and Sophie Wells was victorious in the championship test dressage.

Improving accessibility standards of cities

While this is undoubtedly exciting for Britain, the Paralympic Games, as Marc points out, are about more than counting the medals a nation's champions bring home. They play a greater role in affecting social perspectives to improve the lives of those who possess a disability and, moreover, to re-frame the very concept of 'disability' as one of ability and opportunity. Research has shown that, due to the Paralympics, 33% of adults in the UK have changed their attitude towards people with an impairment, and the momentum and pride generated by each Games encourage hosts to step up the accessibility of their cities - for example, in Rio, significant improvements to public transport and hotels have been made.

We're excited to witness how the success of the most recent Games continues to create strides for the Paralympic cause.

Looking to book  Marc Woods , or a  motivational speaker  from the realm of  sport ?

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