Rio Paralympics: Rio’s moment of reckoning

7 September 2016

by Barney Cullum

As the final preparations were being made — or sacrificed (more of that later) — there was the sense on the ground in Rio today that this Paralympic Games could yet go either way.

South America’s first Jogos Paralímpicos may thrive, or it may fall flat. There is excitement in the air, but wariness too.

Disability has certainly felt more visible here than on my previous visits to Rio. I’d never seen accessible surfing promoted on Copacabana before, and stair-lifts for wheelchair users on the metro are also a new arrival.

The Brazilian airline TAM was proud to announce their status as an official partner of the games on my flight over, not once but several times.

And after all the controversy over Brazilian Vogue using non-disabled models to pose 'as disabled' to promote the games, I’m pleased to report we had the real thing on the in-flight magazine. Visually impaired Judoka fighters standing proud, vibrant and at ease in their skin were positive images that jumped out from the glossy paper.

I’ve seen recumbent cycles dodge and pass taxis and other motorcars today too. Rio’s disabled population are becoming enabled, and the Paralympics has played a part in this. Not just from the infrastructure developed for the Rio Games, but there’s a legacy in terms of aspirational, all-action role models that has permeated since London 2012 and indeed Beijing before.

However, the disabled journalists covering the games are finding it an inaccessible city so far.

Reporters were asked, earlier this year, to complete a 'requirements' spreadsheet from an eager-to-please organising committee keen to accommodate any special transport needs. Cars were promised, but with budget cut-backs, cars became mini-buses. And then, today, we’ve seen transport for the media stripped back almost to nothing.

Athlete transport is being made the priority with what money is left from the joint budget from the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This is right, of course, but again it sends a signal, rightly or wrongly, that the second games are seen as an afterthought.

The games need a lift, a statement of intent, to show that the Paralympics Games is cared for. We all hope it comes tonight. The traffic outside the Maracana suggest we could be in for a full house. With this stadium the largest of those being used for the games, this is hugely promising.

The prospect of seeing a spectacular wheelchair jump tonight, revealed by Channel 4 earlier, represents a scale of ambition that is exactly what the games has been looking for in a build-up that has been at times disappointing, at others alarming.

The time for talk is almost over. Let’s see what tonight brings. Let’s see what the next 11 days bring.

Barney Cullum is a freelance journalist and an external communications officer for Leonard Cheshire Disability.

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