Paralympic Profile

On 16 October tens of thousands of people lined the streets of London and congregated in Trafalgar Square to see the parade of British Olympic and Paralympic stars who competed in Beijing. They were rewarded by the sight of several hundred athletes, including almost all of the most recognisable stars from Chris Hoy to Rebecca Adlington.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the parade was the fact that there was virtually equal billing for the Paralympic athletes. Paralympic medallists such as Eleanor Simmonds (13 year-old swimmer), Lee Pearson (9 gold medals in equestrian) and Aileen McGlynn (multiple medals in cycling) were interviewed live on television alongside the Olympians.

Here is an example of sport leading the way. Apart from politician David Blunkett, there have been very few disabled people in British public life. Where Tanni Grey-Thompson led, others have followed.

It has helped that the standards in some of the Paralympic disciplines are now so high. South African swimmer Natalie du Toit, who has one leg amputated above the knee, competed in the Olympic Games in Beijing as well as the Paralympic Games. Oscar Pistorius (“Bladerunner”) narrowly missed out on qualifying for the 400m at the Olympic Games and generated global publicity in the process.

The nature of Paralympic competition, with classifications for different forms of disability, creates opportunities for people who may be denied such chances in other walks of life. High quality broadcasting has helped raise the profile, which in turn has prompted the public authorities to invest in training Paralympic athletes.

Media coverage of sport thrives on human interest stories, which the Paralympic Games provide in abundance: rehabilitation after terrible accidents; great challenges overcome as children; the dramatic tales of war veterans.

The next bold step forward would be for a major sponsor to focus on a disabled athlete as their headline ambassador rather than as one of a group. Oscar Pistorius is the leading contender. Who will be first to give it a go?

In the last 40 years prejudiced views towards race have frequently been challenged through sport (although that’s a completely different story). Now it is through sport that attitudes to disability are also being questioned. The communities of business, politics, the arts and entertainment should take note.

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