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On August 21, the streets of Rio de Janeiro will begin to empty of fans and the world’s media as the Olympic Games draw to a close.
But it’s not until September 7 that the world’s best disabled athletes — many of whom have overcome medical difficulties and shocking family tragedies to represent their country — will gather in the same Brazilian stadiums to compete in the Paralympics. Once there, the competitors will receive far less exposure and recognition than their able-bodied counterparts.
Many qualifying Paralympic athletes may even miss the 11-day event, as organisers have failed to hand over promised travel grants to competitors from over 50 countries, according to Bloomberg. $8 million (£6 million) of the money reserved for the Paralympics has reportedly been used to pay for last-minute construction crises at the Olympic village and the diving pool, The Guardian reports.
Some leading Paralympians, including six-time gold medalist David Weir, have previously suggested combining disabled and non-disabled events in athletics competitions to increase the exposure of disabled athletes.
The President of the International Paralympic Committee, Sir Philip Craven, has also entertained the idea of merging the events. “It’s really a logistical problem at the moment but I’m not dead against the idea, in principle, of [the Olympics and the Paralympics] coming together at some time,'” he told the BBC in 2012.
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Ryan Raghoo, the British long jump record holder for his T36 disability category, told Business Insider that combining the two events could be an opportunity to give disabled athletes the same status, media exposure, and sponsorship opportunities as Olympic athletes.
“I’ve got Paralympian friends who are world record holders and gold medalists across events and they’re not household names,” Raghoo said. “The same value is not given to the same achievement.”
So why are the two events separate?
“It’s two different things: the International Olympic Committee [IOC] represents able-bodied athletes, while the International Paralympic Committee [IPC] represents Paralympic athletes,” Craig Spence, director of communications at the IPC, told Business Insider. “That’s the simple fact.”
Spence pointed out that the modern Olympic movement was founded in 1894, while the first Paralympics did not take place until the summer of 1960. Disability sport was widely introduced after World War II, as a means to encourage exercise among those injured in the conflict.
“We have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the IOC, which is basically to extend our co-operation to 2032, so nothing will change between now and then,” he said. This agreement between the Olympics and Paralympics allows the events to run concurrently, and promises that the two bodies work together to promote the “Paralympic brand.” According to the document, they do this by “deepening existing cooperation,” and guaranteeing the “financial stability and long-term viability of the IPC.” It makes no mention of a possible merger.
However, the Olympics and the Paralympics aren’t only separate because of tradition. There are also more practical reasons, according to Spence.
“If we combine the two, then we would have 15,000 athletes,” he said. “We would need a far bigger athlete village. Logistically, the event would take probably five weeks to complete and it just doesn’t logistically make sense to bring the two together.”
Despite comfortably making the qualification distance for the Rio Paralympics, Raghoo was not selected by Team GB because the number of places for disabled athletics competitors at Rio was limited to 55. In comparison, 80 athletes were selected for the British athletic team in the Olympics.
“It was very disappointing for me,” Raghoo said. “It would have been a special moment for me, but also for the sport because Britain has never qualified for the event before.”
One reason Raghoo was not selected is because of large funding disparities between the Olympics and Paralympics. During the period between 2012 and 2016, UK Sport increased its investment in Paralympic athletes by 43%, according to the BBC. However, this brought the total figure to just £70.2 million, which is considerably less than the £276.8 million that was spent on Olympic athletes in the same period.
“We send nine guys to the four-by-100 metres team in the Olympics,” Raghoo said. “Only six of the guys can run, so three of those guys can’t race.” The three extra relay athletes he refers to go to Rio in case one of the other sprinters is injured.
“Everyone selected has worked damn hard and deserves to be there,” he said, but “if those three slots were given to the Paralympic squad, you could have won three gold medals.”
But Raghoo is unsure whether the Olympics and the Paralympics should be merged at this stage. “I don’t honestly know is the answer,” he said. “What I’m saying is the Paralympics needs to be brought up to the same level as the Olympics.”
One argument against merging the two events, put forward by former British wheelchair racer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, is that much of the Paralympics would “disappear off the face of the earth” because only very few disability events would be incorporated.
British Paralympian Hannah Cockroft has also said that she is against combining the two events. “I don’t want the Olympics and Paralympics to merge because I am proud of what we have made of that name,” she told the BBC. The athlete said she worries that losing the separate Paralympics brand would leave disabled athletes overshadowed by other Olympic stars.
Paralympians do not necessarily need to be boosted by merging the Paralympics with the Olympics. Disability sport could simply be given more funding, more exposure, and respect, with increased media coverage.
The London 2012 Paralympics sold 2.72 million tickets, making it the third biggest sporting event behind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, according to the Paralympic movement. Meanwhile, Channel 4 gained 11.2 million viewers during its broadcast of the Paralympic opening ceremony — the channel’s biggest audience in a decade.
Despite the success of the last Paralympics, mainstream media interest in disability sport has waned since 2012. The Diamond League — a 14-leg series of athletics events — gets regular coverage on networks like the BBC, but disability sport outside of the Paralympics is hardly covered.
During the IPC Athletics European Championships, there were “people becoming European champions and their family back home could not even watch them on television,” Raghoo said.
British wheelchair racer David Weir has been outspoken about the need to give disabled sport more exposure.
“I am a big believer we need to be in the public’s faces all the time,” the British athlete told the BBC in 2015. “It will die because we are not on TV every week, we are not in the Diamond League, we are not in newspapers.”
“The momentum has been lost from 2012 and 2013,” he said, “and if we’re not careful it’ll go back to how it was before.”
The most recent data on the issue from a 2011 survey by disability charity Scope shows that 65% of disabled people are in favour of scrapping the Paralympics and instead allowing disabled athletes to compete in the Olympics. 42% of disabled people said they disagreed that the Paralympics positively impact the public’s perception of disabled people, while one in five said that the Paralympics makes disabled people appear to be “second class.”
“Whatever happens,” Rhagoo said, “the athletes have to be at the very centre of whatever decision is made.”