Tim Hollingsworth, CEO, British Paralympic Association talks about the success of London 2012 and the benefit the Paralympics will have on our perceptions of and attitudes to disability, and disabled athletes.
An extraordinary thing happened in this country in the past month. The success of the London 2012 Olympic Games and in particular of Team GB and our Olympic athletes created an incredible wave of national excitement, unity and pride. The Games was responsible for some new and different behaviour. It was incredible for me to see normally ‘sport-resistant’ friends rushing home so that they could see the 10 metre Platform Diving Final. It was a positive, optimistic environment where our athletes showed that if you believed enough and worked hard enough, anything is possible.
Having had this moment, the big worry was that the wave would come crashing down, we would return to our previous, cynical, world-weary ways and all the benefits gained by the success of the Olympics lost.
Well for those with that concern, I have good news. Something even more extraordinary is about to happen, that will focus not just on our desire to feel positive and excited by our nation’s success and proud of our athletes, but go beyond that.
The London 2012 Paralympic Games will start on 29 August. Ten days of incredible sporting competition that will once again have the nation on the edge of its seat. But in addition it will bring something more. It will have direct impact on our emotions, and also on our perceptions of and attitudes to disability, and disabled athletes. And this really could have profound, long term benefit.
We caught a glimpse of this four years ago in Beijing, when a 13-year old swimmer touched the wall first, claiming her second Gold medal – one of 42 for ParalympicsGB. The achievements of Ellie Simmonds and many other Paralympic medallists in Beijing opened eyes to the incredible strength, skill and endeavour of these athletes and the excitement and excellence of the sport.
Beijing 2008 was successful in terms of having big crowds, but even then there was disappointment as these elite athletes performed on many occasions to half-empty stadiums. Everyone involved in London 2012 has been determined that this would not happen this time around. London’s bid promised a fully inclusive Games like no other. It recognised that the ‘Paras’ are come home.
The Paralympic Games was conceived here in Britain, in Stoke Mandeville hospital, for injured war heroes at the end of the Second World War. We can claim to have led the world in disability sport ever since. The Games themselves have come a long way since 16 competitors took part in the first Games back in 1948. Today we look forward to 165 countries, with over 4,200 athletes competing across 20 sports. And we are determined to use this opportunity, to ensure the Games take their greatest leap forward yet.
There are many signs these games are different. The way organisers LOCOG have integrated the Paralympics into every element of their planning. The incredible news around ticket sales. The way Channel 4, as host broadcaster, are scheduling over 400 hours of coverage over a range of dedicated channels. And the way that commercial sponsors of London 2012 have embraced the Games. Companies like BT, Sainsburys, Deloitte, EDF, P&G, BP, Cisco and BA have put Paralympians at the heart of their campaigns.
As we go into London 2012, expectations for the ParalympicsGB team are high and we have devoted more time, resource and energy to preparations than ever before. We’ve worked closely with athletes and their coaches to ensure every single member of the team is in the right physical and mental condition to perform on the biggest stage of all. Our ambition is to win more medals than ever before and maintain our second place in the medals table. It will be tough but we have a great team and I know the athletes will do themselves, and the nation, proud.
The story of the Paralympic Games starts with the sport but shouldn’t end there. Our ambition – and those of our partners – goes further. More than almost anything else, Paralympic sport provides a positive challenge to perceptions. It drives you to focus on achievement, to consider what someone is able to do rather than what they are not.
I think this can have profound impact and be the springboard to more and better opportunities, and be a means by which a very positive agenda can be put forward for disabled people. That is why, for all that it is a central word in the language of the Games, I don’t think we should be talking of a ‘legacy’ from the Paralympic Games. The word legacy suggests that you have reached your high water mark in terms of ambition and opportunity and are now seeking to find ways to sustain it.
That is not the case for Paralympic sport. There should be more, and greater, things to come. So for me we should talk not of the legacy but of the ‘momentum’ from London 2012. What can we build as a result of the Games that will affect lasting improvement and change?
Over the next ten days, the focus will be on the sport and the excellence of the athletes. I hope and believe the nation will rise again in support of them and with the same fervour as we did in July. I hope and believe too that this can be captured and retained, and we can through sport, inspire a better world for disabled people.