Archive for the ‘Paralympic Games’ Category

BBC cuts a worrying sign for minor sports after London 2012

The BBC announced on 6 October its plans for delivering programming and content through to 2017 in the context of 20% cuts mandated by the government. The sports budget will be reduced by 15%, which could hit some minor sports particularly hard.

Initial plans to cut some services in their entirety met with fierce opposition so the BBC has opted to make reductions across the board, including a previously announced 25% saving in the budget of BBC Online. Among the BBC’s media rivals in the UK, the plans have generally been accepted as sensible (see, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post).

In order to save money, the BBC will share the rights to Formula One in 2012 and 2013 with BSkyB. There will also be reductions to some unspecified smaller sports events and to sports coverage on the website.

With the start of the Olympic Games in London now less than 300 days away, the race is on for many of the sports involved to stake a claim to continuing BBC coverage after 2012. As Channel 4 has secured the TV rights to the Paralympic Games, Paralympic sports may believe their best option lies there.

Among Olympic sports, the likes of athletics, swimming and cycling must win medals and demonstrate spectator appeal. Other sports ambitious for British success at London 2012, such as rowing, hockey and gymnastics, will be hoping that the Games can help them produce stars that the BBC want to continue to feature.

While there are plenty of other TV broadcasters in the UK that cover sport – BSkyB, ITV, Channel 4, Eurosport, ESPN, newcomer GBSport.tv and others – the BBC provides a sizeable audience on free to air TV and by far the most popular sports website (12.5m visitors a week, according to the BBC’s own figures). The BBC also has a heritage of covering Olympic sports which other channels rarely feature.

Even with the advantage of marketable British stars, Olympic sports will still need to offer the right kind of events to attract the interest of broadcasters, which is not straightforward (competition should ideally be live, conveniently packaged for TV, avoiding clashes with other events).

And then there are the issues of rights fees and production costs to consider. Only the most popular sports and events can successfully sell their rights to the highest bidder. In many cases federations or event organisers will have to pay for TV production and offer the feed to broadcasters. With advances in technology it should be possible to produce footage more cheaply than before, increasing the chance that an event will be screened on TV, even if it is not on one of the most popular channels.

It is clear that very few of the Olympic sports can be confident of TV coverage on the most popular channels in the UK after London 2012. The best way to guarantee interest will be to have high profile British stars. The pressure is on.

Is Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius too good?

On 19 July South African athlete Oscar Pistorius achieved the qualifying time for the 400m at the forthcoming World Athletics Championships in Korea and for next year’s Olympic Games using prosthetic legs. His story of personal triumph inspires an unusual mix of emotions.

In running 45.07 in a race in Italy he moved into the top 20 in the 2011 rankings and proved himself a genuine contender against any 400m runner in the world. That makes some people uncomfortable.

When he burst on the scene as a prodigiously talented teenager at the Paralympic Games in 2004 it was a wonderful story: an individual born with a rare disability who had both legs amputated below the knee as a baby proved he could overcome the challenge and run remarkably fast with prosthetic legs.

In 2005 he set a new 400m personal best of 47.24 which took him into international territory among able-bodies athletes but some way off world class.

There was a long legal battle in 2007-8 before the Court of Arbitration for Sport finally ruled that Pistorius did not gain an advantage in comparison to other runners. He narrowly missed out on qualification for the Beijing Olympic Games but won three gold medals in the Paralympic Games.

His recent performance generated a huge amount of media interest around the world with most commentators in favour of him competing (see, for example the London Evening Standard- “Ignore the moral dilemma, let Oscar run in our Games” and Corriere dello Sport – “Blade Runner’s enterprise makes the world more equal and gives inspiration to those who, like him, have never resigned themselves to the limits imposed by their physique or insidious discrimination”). Meanwhile, the BBC presents both sides of the argument - “The debate surrounding Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius”

Public blog comments are more mixed (over 40 comments on this article in the Guardian and sceptical views on athletics blogs).

While everybody admires his performances and wants to watch him run, some people are uncomfortable if he is genuinely challenging for the top places at the Olympic Games. In the opinion of many, finishing 6th in the first round at the Olympic Games would be acceptable but winning the gold medal would not be.

That main concerns expressed are that the artificial legs give Pistorius an advantage (or at least a more advanced version might do so in future) and that a potentially dangerous precedent is being set. Could crazy ambitious parents one day consider amputating the legs of their children to make them run faster?

Sport occasionally throws up these difficult dilemmas but Oscar has overcome every barrier put in his way and thoroughly deserves his chance to compete at the World Championships and the Olympic Games. If he stays fit and gets selected by South Africa he could become a global icon.

The final word on the subject and the best headline accompanies James Corrigan’s article in the Independent: “Puritans are just taking the Pistorius”.

Sport’s virtuous circle of funding

The governing bodies of six sports in the UK have heard this week that they will receive more funding to support athletes in preparation for London 2012.

The additional resources, which result from better than predicted Lottery sales, will go to hockey, gymnastics, boxing, taekwondo, rowing and canoeing. British athletes in all of these sports have made significant progress in the last two years. There was also a boost for some of the winter sports.

UK Sport, the high performance sports agency which grants Lottery funds to governing bodies, has the objective of maximising British success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The difficulty is that sports which lack resources and profile in the UK are less likely to see good British performances than their better known peers. As a result those who are doing well will have their funding increased while those who really need the help will lose out.

This time round several sports had their grants reduced, including the winter sports of figure skating, skiing and snowboarding.

International sport is a tough, unforgiving environment. With many demands on its resources, UK Sport has to give priority to funding sporting disciplines which offer a realistic chance of medals in the near future. However, the situation is not hopeless: if there are improvements in performance and management the rewards will follow.

Of course sporting success boosts the potential value of sponsorship for athletes and their governing bodies. Unfortunately, quite a few Olympic and Paralympic sports struggle to attract sufficient sponsorship income to make a real difference to their elite training programmes.

Other types of commercial income, such as membership fees, potentially offer a more reliable revenue stream. Dave Edwards from British Ski and Snowboard, speaking to BBC Sport, urged British recreational skiers to sign up for £3 to become members to help replace the Lottery funding that has been lost.

Online tools and payment systems make it easier than before to collect modest sums of money from larger numbers of people. The great marketing challenge for governing bodies is to provide a service which casual fans will pay for, not just the active participants in the sport.

If any of the smaller governing bodies can find a way to earn a few hundred thousand pounds extra to fund elite training, they might just be able to enter the virtuous circle post 2012.

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.