London 2012 Paralympics: Best Ever

Margaret Maughan lights the cauldron of the 2012 London Paralympics.

On Sunday night, the fourteenth Summer Paralympic Games closed in London. They were contested only a month after the main summer Olympic Games began. These Paralympic Games were another effort of the International Paralympic Committee to help put disabled sport upon the same parallel as able-bodied sport. They became the biggest and best ever.

START AND DEVELOPMENT

Sport for the disabled has existed ever since there were people with disabilities who still wanted to remain active and had the will to make it happen. However the start of formal sport for people with disabilities had its start and development at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in the English town of Stoke Mandeville 55 km northwest of London. It was after World War II and through the iron will of war veterans left permanently injured with either paralysis or amputation to develop sport to stay physically active and through the guidance of neurologist Ludwig Guttmann. It was on July 28, 1948–the day before the main Summer Olympics of London opened–that the Stoke Mandeville Games For The Paralyzed took place. It consisted of a single archery competition between fourteen men and two women, all from the UK.

You could say it was those Stoke Mandeville Games where the Paralympic sports movement would be born. True, but it would take some time and development. The Stoke Mandeville Games would become an annual sports competition and would consist of UK athletes only. In 1952, Dutch athletes participated at the Stoke Mandeville Games making it the first ever International Stoke Mandeville Games. The Games would continue to be contested annually and would continue to become more international. Then a breakthrough occurred in 1960 when Rome, host city of the Summer Olympics that year, agreed to host the International Stoke Mandeville Games just weeks after the main Olympics ended. This was the first time those Games were held outside of Stoke Mandeville and would later be remembered as the first ever Paralympic Games. It consisted of 400 athletes from 23 countries participating in 57 events in eight sports.

Paralympic sport would continue to grow. The International Stoke Mandeville Games would continue to be contested annually in Stoke Mandeville for three more years. Then in 1964, Tokyo would host the Games just weeks after the main Olympics ended just like Rome did four years earlier. The Stoke Mandeville Games continued annually and the 1968 Stoke Games we held just weeks after the main Olympics ended. However they would be held in Tel Aviv, Israel instead of Mexico City which hosted the main Olympics. This would continue on for twenty years where the Stoke Mandeville Games would be held in Stoke Mandeville in non-Olympic years and be held in an international city. There would be two dissimilarities during this period of time. One would be no mention of Stoke Mandeville in the title and having tiles like ‘Olympiad For The Physically Disabled’ or ‘International Games For The Disabled’. Another dissimilarity was the host city as it would be a different host city than the main Olympic Games. Also noteworthy was the creation of the first ‘Winter Olympic Games Of the Disabled’ in 1976. Like the Summer Games, the Winter Games would also be contested in cities that didn’t host the main Winter Olympics. One notable achievement of those Games is that over the years they would be recognized seriously enough for national heads of state to formally open them at their Opening Ceremonies.

Another breakthrough occurred in the summer of 1988 when the Games were held in Seoul, Korea just weeks after they finished hosting the main Olympic Games. This marked a return to the original format of 24 years ago when these Games took place in the same host city of the main Olympic Games and this partnering would continue to be the format to this day. Another notable thing of these Games was that they would be the first such Games to be referred to as the ‘Paralympic’ Games for ‘parallel’, not paralyzed and most people think. The ‘merger’ of the two Games that year would prove to be a great success and would even spawn the formation of the International Paralympic Committee the following year.

Also in case you’re interested, the International Stoke Mandeville Games would later be renamed the World Wheelchair Games and are now called the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) World Games. They are headed by the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation, a sports federation separate from the International Paralympic Committee, and take place annually except during Paralympic years and at various cities worldwide.

MY OWN EXPERIENCE: VANCOUVER 2010

As many of you know, I come from Vancouver. Our city hosted to 2010 Winter Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games of that year. I had tickets for the Opening Ceremonies, alpine skiing, nordic skiing and sledge hockey. It was a very good experience. The Opening Ceremonies held on March 12th was a fun occasion which featured a DJ performing for the parade of athletes as they were coming out. The opening ceremonies also involved audience participation and featured a wide array of performers from a breakdancer with Arthrogryposis named ‘Lazylegs’ to an amputee rock band to wheelchair riders practicing halfpipe tricks to a deaf poet. The Ceremonies also paid tribute to two of Canada’s greatest athletes with disabilities: the late Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. There were speeches made by Hansen as well as past Paralympic athletes like Aimee Mullins and Chantal Petitclerc. The ceremony ended with a grand lighting of the flame by teenage athlete Zac Beaumont: a Paralympic snowboarder. He was selected to represent the future of Paralympic sport not just because of his age but also because he was a snowboarder and snowboarding was not part of those Paralympics. Snowboarding will make its Paralympic debut in 2014 under the name Parasnowboarding.

The following day I was to see the alpine skiing competition at Whistler. It was cancelled out due to foggy conditions and heavy snow. Even despite the cancellation, there was an area at the basin of the hill where children and adults could try Paralympic sports on their own. There was sledge skiing trials, sledge hockey trials and even an amputee skiing trials. It was also an introduction to the equipment used for sports competitions like the sledges for sledge skiing and the ski poles for amputee skiers called outriggers whose edges first act like poles then flip to become skis to support balance. Over at a visit to the main Whistler Town Square there were performances by rock bands throughout the square and celebrations galore at the restaurants. The medal ceremonies happened later that night. It was a great occasion and all the athletes were excited for what they achieved and the mood was festive. Whistler would be the competition grounds for all but three medal events of the Paralympic games so these Games were as much Whistler’s as they were Vancouver’s.

Me with IPC President Sir Philip Craven during Vancouver 2010.

I returned to Whistler Thursday the 18th to watch nordic skiing. There were three types of competitions: sledge, blind and amputee. Both sledge skiers and blind skiers were all ranked by their finish time. Amputee skiers were different as there were different types of amputees through the competition and times had to be adjusted due to the amputee level of each athlete for the sake of a level playing field. A unique thing I learned is that blind skiers, both nordic and alpine, would have guides with full vision guiding them through telecommunication letting them know of what to expect while they’re on course. Often guides for Paralympic athletes have to be athletes of Olympic caliber ability. I also remember groups of schoolchildren were at the events as part of a special promotion from the ticket sales. Later that day i went back to the village where they had a special igloo shaped exhibit called ‘Spirit In Motion’. Inside was an exhibit of Paralympic sports and its history. It was almost like walking through a museum learning all the information. Most of the exhibits were provided by Otto Bock, a German prosthetics company. I was also able to meet Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). We talked for a short bit as he had to head back to Vancouver. I told him I was to see a sledge hockey game tomorrow and that’s when he gave me the news that Canada lost their semifinal to Japan. My heart sunk because I wanted them to make the gold-medal final of course. The day ended with more celebrations over at the Whistler Olympic Plaza. Medals were given out and two of which went to Canadian athletes that were some of the biggest winners of these Games: five-time gold medallist Lauren Woolstecroft, an amputee alpine skier; and three-time gold medalist Brian McKeever, a blind Nordic skier. The ceremonies ended with a concert by Serena Ryder.

Friday the 19th was the day for the bronze medal game of sledge hockey. I was too late to get a ticket for the gold-medal final. This was the match I was hoping NOT to see Team Canada play in. Of course I wanted them to play in the gold-medal match. Sledge hockey has been one Paralympic sport that has caught a lot of attention over the past few years. Canada has also welcomed the sport with open arms and matched have stimulated interest in the sport.  Anyways it was held at a hockey stadium over at the UBC Campus. The game was scoreless during the first two periods. Then a goal for Canada happened at the beginning of the third. During the third period, things started looking bad for Canada as they had only one shot on goal while Norway was having plenty. Then the nasty moment came. A foul by a Canadian was committed which allowed Norway a penalty shot. This infuriated the Canadian goalie enough for him to throw his helmet down. When the Norwegian took his penalty shot, he scored. Tied 1-1. Then one of the Canadian players took a bad hit and was lying on the ground. He was lying still and the coach came rushing out onto the ice. The whole arena was silent. Fortunately he was able to get up. The whole area was so relieved he was alright we didn’t seem to care if we won or not. We didn’t; Norway scored the bronze medal-winning goal with less than four seconds to go.

ACCOLADES AND CONTROVERSIES

The Paralympic Games have had their greats over the years. the most medaled Paralympian is American blind swimmer Trischa Zorn who won a total of 55 medals, 41 of them gold, from 1980 to 2004. The most medaled Winter Paralympian is Norwegian Ragnhild Myklebust who won 27 medals including 22 golds in three different winter sports: biathlon, Cross-country skiing, and ice sledge racing. It’s interesting to know that while Michael Phelps is the only Olympian with 10 or more gold medals, there are a total of 39 Paralympians with ten or more. The most medaled Canadian is Chantal Petitclerc, a Wheelchair racer who has won a total of 21 medals including 14 gold. Another Canadian Paralympic legend is Arnie Boldt, a single-leg amputee performer in athletics, who has won a multitude of Paralympic medals and was especially dominant in the high jump. Many consider him to be the best Paralympic athletics performer ever. The most golds in a single games is 12 won by Trischa Zorn at the 1988 Summer Paralympics. While Phelps is the only Olympian to win eight golds in a single games, there are six Paralympians who have won eight or more.

Each Paralympic sport has had their greats. While there’s Zorn and French swimmer Beatrice Hess in swimming, there’s Sweden’s Jonas Jacobsson in shooting, Germany’s Gerd Schoenfelder in alpine skiing, Myklebust in nordic skiing, Petitclerc and Switzerland’s Franz Nietlispach in athletics, and Britain’s Lee Pearson in athletics.

The Paralympic Games are not without their controversies. The biggest example of cheating came at the Sydney Games of 2000 when Spain’s intellectual disability basketball team was ruled to have at least ten members who weren’t intellectually disabled. Mental tests, which were to be conducted before the Games, weren’t conducted. It was later admitted ten members weren’t intellectually disabled and the team was stripped of the gold. That was considered by many to be one of the ‘most outrageous sporting moments’ in history. Intellectually Disabled Basketball has not been contested at the Paralympics ever since and it wouldn’t be until these Paralympics in London where Intellectual Disability sports would make a return, and under close scrutiny.

There have also been doping violations at the Paralympic Games too. The first positive tests came at the 1992 Barcelona Games. The Sydney Games of 2000 was the first Games to ensure their Games met the International Medical and Anti-Doping Code. Out-of-competition tests were introduced at those Games. Those resulted in fourteen athletes testing positive, ten of them powerlifters. There’s even a form of doping unique to Paralympic sport: boosting-where the athlete is induced with autonomic dysreflexia to increase blood pressure. It’s an ongoing problem that still exists.

THE LONDON GAMES THEMSELVES

These Paralympic Games were anticipated to be the biggest ever. Organizers were expecting before the Games to be the first Paralympics to achieve mass market appeal, fueled by the public enthusiasm continuing after the end of the main Olympics in London, the UK’s role in Paralympic sport and growing interest and media in Paralympic Sport. The torch bagan its journey on August 24th with torch lightings in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. All four met in Stoke Mandeville on the 28th, the day before the Games’ opening, to unite to create a special cauldron during a special ceremony commemorating the village’s role in the history of the Paralympics. The flame headed for London was lit and it arrived at the stadium after a 24 hour relay during the opening ceremonies just after being declared open by Queen Elizabeth II. The cauldron was similar to the multi-pedaled cauldron used for the main Olympics and it was lit by Margaret Maughan, Britain’s first Paralympic champion. The opening ceremony was as star-studded as the Olympics featuring acting from Ian McKellen, music from group Orbital and an appearance from Stephen Hawking. The closing ceremony was just as star-studded as it included Coldplay, Rihanna and Jay-Z. The Paralympic flag, by the same tradition as the Olympic flag, was handed from the mayor of London to the mayor of Rio. And British Paralympic champions Jonnie Peacock and Ellie Simmonds extinguished the flame and shared its last flame on torches to others throughout the stadium.

4300 athletes from 156 countries participated at these Games in the 503 events throughout the twenty sports. The competitions were a delight themselves and you could guarantee Olympic appearances by South African runner Oscar Pistorius would stimulate attention. He attracted a lot of attention but was surprised in the 200m run when he was beaten by a Brazilian runner. The sprinting star of those Games was actually a British teenage sprinter Jonnie Peacock. A single-leg amputee, he won the 100m for his disability class. His coach was Dan Pfaff, coach of 1996 Olympic 100m dash champion Donovan Bailey.

The most medaled athletes were Australian swimmers Jacqui Freney and Matthew Cowdrey with eight medals each: all gold for Jacqui and five gold for Matthew. The athletics competition had two quadruple-gold medalists with American Raymond Martin and Brit Dave Weir. Another British athlete, cyclist Sarah Storey, also won four gold medals. The most medaled Canadian was swimmer Summer Mortimer who won seven medals including two gold. Britain’s Sophie Christianson won two gold medals in equestrian. Brazil and Russia won the two football tournaments. The powerlifting events were won mostly by Nigeria, Iran and Egypt. China proved to be as dominant in Paralympic table tennis as they are at Olympic table tennis winning 14 of the 26 golds. China also won six of the twelve wheelchair fencing events.

In terms of the medals race, China won the most with 231 medals, 95 of them gold. Host country Great Britain won the second-most medals with 120 including 34 gold. Russia won the third-most medals with 102  including 36 gold. The USA was fourth in medals with 98 including 31 gold. Canada had its lowest Paralympic medal haul in 40 years with only 31 medals, seven of them gold. Canada usually ends up in the Top 10 on the Paralympic medals chart but ranked 20th at these Games.

GAMES MARKETING

Having the Paralympics start weeks after the main Olympic end and in the same host city has helped establish the Paralympic Games since they were repartnered back in 1988 and as helped them grow considerably. It’s another thing to help promote and market Paralympic sport and get good ticket seat sales. Even though ticket sales are lower than that of the main Olympic Games, it hasn’t been easy to attract good-sized crowds to Paralympic sport. There have been some cases in past Paralympics where some events would ‘give away’ seats to attract crowds. There have been other times when Paralympic events would attract good-sized crowds. I remember back in 2010 the gold medal match for sledge hockey was sold out weeks before it was contested. Thus my purchase of a ticket for bronze medal match. I also remember the Paralympic Games offering discounts for groups of ten or more and even offers for field trips for schoolchildren. The ceremonies were very well-attended. The skiing events I attended also had good sized crowds. The sledge hockey playoff rounds started selling out as the weeks got closer. And the medal matches for wheelchair curling sold out.

London attempted to take it even further by becoming the biggest-selling Paralympic Games in history. They planned to sell a total of 2.7 million tickets. Part of the promotions included introducing the Paralympic mascot Mandeville, named after the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the same day the main Olympic mascot Wenlock was introduced. Royal Mail released a combined Olympic/Paralympic postage stamp series of 30 stamps each featuring either an Olympic or Paralympic sport. One of which came from Channel 4, the British channel broadcasting the Paralympic Games with 150 hours of live coverage, ran an ad campaign in the weeks leading up called Meet The Superhumans. The Ads were aired over 78 commercial television stations in Britain and was met with huge critical acclaim.

Broadcasting was also very good. Many countries like Britain, Australia, France, Germany, Spain, South Africa devoted five or more hours a day on live coverage. Some countries like Canada and New Zealand had broadcast of ceremonies and a daily hour-long highlights show. The one country with the least coverage was the United States. NBC and its NBC Sports Network only provided a total of 5 1/2 hours of coverage. Only four one-hour highlight shows and a recap show on NBC scheduled for September 16th. There was actually a lot of online broadcast of the Paralympic Games that was more active than broadcast on television. Canada had four online channels broadcasting 580 hours of coverage. Many other countries included their own online broadcast. And the IPC’s own Youtube channel broadcast approximately 780 hours of coverage. Broadcasting rights raised a profit of  £10 million, a Paralympic record.

As for tickets, 2.7 million were sold. Even before the main Olympics were over, London’s Paralympic ticket sales had already broken the Paralympic record of 1.8 million for the Beijing Paralympics. By the time the Opening Ceremonies started, a total of 2.4 million were sold. The Opening Ceremonies only had 800 tickets unsold before its start which went to the police and the military along with London Mayor Boris Johnson distributing 1100 to youth athletic clubs. There was even 100,000 contingency tickets sold on September 6 due to popular demand which included multi-event passes and event tickets passed on by sponsors and partners. It’s no wonder this much enthusiasm led Sir Philip Craven to call these ‘the best Paralympic Games ever’ at the closing ceremonies.

LOOKING BACK AND LOOKING AHEAD

Oscar Pistorius’ popularity has done a lot to stimulate interest in Paralympic sport.

There can be many factors determining why these became the biggest and best Paralympic Games ever. One could be increasing support and funding of Paralympic sport from almost all national Olympic Committees. Some could also say it was due to Britain’s enthusiasm of the main Summer Olympics that poured into these Paralympics. Some could also add it was the Olympic appearance of South African double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius that stirred up excitement. Some could say it was Britain’s contribution to Paralympic sport from the genesis of its formation at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital after World War II to Sir Philip Craven serving as the current President of the IPC. Nevertheless the organizers succeeded in making this the best Paralympic Games ever and leaves a tough act for Rio to follow in 2016.

Despite the success of these Paralympic Games, there are some challenges that lay ahead. First is the connection of the Paralympic Games to the Olympic Games. Since 1988 it has relied on being held shortly after the conclusion of the main Olympics to boost its popularity. That move has been very successful and is under contract to continue to be that way at least until 2020. The question is will this ‘partnership’ continue after or will the Paralympics try to hold their own by being held in a different host city? Also The IOC and IPC have close ties and both Presidents Jacques Rogge and Philip Craven meet regularly. Would the ties continue if there was such a change?

Another is the cultivation of star Paralympic athletes and the support of Paralympic sports. We have one current star Paralympian in Oscar Pistorius, commonly known as ‘The Fastest Man On No Legs’. His quest to compete at the main Olympics since 2008 and his appearances at the main London Olympics have sparked his popularity to where he receives $2 million in endorsement money annually. It’s less than the $20 million Usain Bolt will be getting but the most for any Paralympian ever. I’ve even seen him in two Nike commercials. The question is will there be other newer Paralympic stars in the future to help popularize Paralympic sport. Also the funding for Paralympic athletes. As the Paralympics continue to grow, will the funding of Paralympic athletes continue to grow too? Another is people with disabilities having access to sporting activity. I remember going to the Canada Paralympic Association website before Vancouver 2010 and saw an into that said: “34% of able-bodied people have access to sporting activity. 3% of people with disabilities have access.” Will access to sport for people with disabilities grow over time and how will it be promoted to them? I also remember shortly after the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics there were many bus ads promoting Paralympic sport throughout various buses. That’s one good example. Also the possible increase of more Paralympic Sports. Over time there will be more efforts to make more sports for people with disabilities accessible and competitive. Already I know Parasnowboarding will make its debut at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. Will there be new Paralympic sports in Rio and in future Summer Games? Only time will tell and it will have to involve the national and international sports federations and the athletes to get the green light from the International Paralympic Committee.

The 2012 Paralympic Games of London ended with a record bang. Enthusiasm for these Games paralleled that of the main Olympics. The future of Paralympic athletes and Paralympic sport looks bright and more promising than ever. It’s up to the various organizing committees and the athletes to help take Paralympic sport into the future not just for the increase of fanfare and revenue but also for the accessibility for the disabled. Nevertheless after these Paralympics, the future couldn’t look any brighter.

WORKS CITED:

WIKIPEDIA: 2012 Summer Paralympics. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Paralympic_Games>

WIKIPEDIA: Paralympic Games. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paralympic_Games>

WIKIPEDIA: Cheating At The Paralympic Games. Wikipedia.com. 2012. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cheating_at_the_Paralympic_Games>

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