Rio Paralympic Games review part one: carnival proves the doubters wrong, at pivotal time for disabled people worldwide

16 September 2016

by Barney Cullum

Here in Brazil, South America’s first Paralympic Games has been seen as a revelation.

There were, as we remember, signs of indifference before Rio’s latest carnival began.

We should not have been surprised that tickets sales were initially slow — a similar ‘slow burn’ was seen when Brazil hosted both the 2014 Football World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.

In fact, when you consider how much sport locals have been spoiled by in the last two years, it was almost inevitable it took a little time for interest to first rise and later soar.

In the end, some two million tickets were sold. Few of these went to international visitors, indicating that Rio — a city of seven million inhabitants — truly embraced the competition and festivities.

Brazilians love to celebrate, but do so spontaneously. The local media can be credited too, for sparking intrigue in the Games and delivering more disability awareness generally. Compelling TV, radio, print and online coverage abounded. 

The Paralympic Games have a history over fifty years old and in all that time only London 2012 has been experienced live by a greater number of spectators.

‘Never before have so many Brazilian children been exposed to such diversity of disability,’ said Regina Cohen, an accessibility researcher and wheelchair user from Ipanema.

This represents an important milestone for Brazil, because the country is at a crossroads. 

13 years of socialist governments have come to end following the departure of President Dilma Rousseff. Many disabled people consider her exit a coup — an illegal ousting — and have fears over what the new regime may mean for them.

Disability movements, charities and those who work in both education and rehabilitation all told me the Paralympic Games had arrived at a pivotal time.

‘Until now, the challenge of how best to support disabled people has not been treated as the great question that it is,’ I was told at Pestalozzi, an organisation which supports children with learning disabilities, seizures and pain caused by the Zika virus.

It is hoped the games can stop the empowerment of disabled people from being deprioritised.

This wish is shared by many in the UK. There is a social care funding crisis across the country. Before Rio, many surveys suggested the positive legacy of the London Games had come close to petering out.

‘I hope Rio is remembered as the "games of possibility",’ Lord Holmes, Britain’s most decorated Paralympic swimmer, said this week. 

The latest edition of the games showed disabled people can achieve the same things as everyone else, if they are supported in the right way.

‘Disability needs more attention in China,’ I was told by multi-medallist Tian Jianquan.

The fencer and boccia player, who works for a disability organisation in his day job, added he felt opportunities open to disabled people had improved since the Beijing Games in 2008.

‘The games is popular in Kenya, and we are now a country that is making progress,’ added blind 1,500-metres star Henry Kirwa, a veteran of several games.

Before the games, Kenya-born Anne Wafula Strike and Leonard Cheshire Disability joined forces again to call on Rio and the International Paralympic Committee to ensure poorer countries stripped of travel grants secured a passage to Brazil.

We were pleased to see all countries with a Paralympic Association (save for Russia, barred due to a drugs ban) were ultimately represented.

The Paralympic movement has legacies for everyone, but only so long as it continues to remain inclusive and is given the same backing as the Olympic Games.

Barney is working at the Paralympic Games as a freelance journalist for the Independent, Vice, PosAbility and other outlets. He is also a press officer at Leonard Cheshire Disability.

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