Paralympics-Rehearsal time as Paralympic show seeks to widen its appeal

Organisers are determined that London’s other 2012 Games will engage the public and bring the athletes deserved recognition

What does the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester this week have to do with a pop concert on London’s Clapham Common featuring the girl group The Saturdays? Improbably enough, they represent different strands of a concerted attempt to prepare the Paralympic movement to make the most of the unprecedented opportunity in London next August.

A mere tea party compared to next summer’s state banquet, the World Cup this week nevertheless presents an early chance for Channel 4 and sponsors including BT and Sainsbury’s to ramp up their efforts to showcase the Paralympic sports and stars they hope will have the nation transfixed next summer. The concert, in September, sponsored by the supermarket chain, is part of a wider attempt to engage members of the public who may have vaguely been aware of the Paralympic stars during the Beijing Games but have not thought about them since.

Those involved do not underestimate the scale of the challenge. The recent announcement of ticket prices for the Paralympics showed the difficulty organisers will have in being heard above the noise of the Olympics. Organisers, headed by Lord Coe and MPs including the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, are bullish, declaring that they believe the Paralympics will be a surprise hit as the country looks to continue the Olympic party. The correlating danger is that they will be viewed as coming after the Lord Mayor’s Show.

The sporting challenge is no less stark. As with the Olympics team, the pressure will be on athletes to perform in the face of competition from ever-improving competition – whether from emerging nations such as the Ukraine, South Africa and Russia or traditionally strong medal table contenders such as the USA and Australia.

“As the British team our ambition for 2012 is to maintain our position as a leading nation in Paralympic sport. We have finished second in the medal table at the last three Games and in London we will be chasing every medal possible so that we can maximise our chances of finishing in second place again,” said the Paralympics GB chairman, Tim Reddish.

Locog, almost universally praised in the Paralympic world for its integrated approach to the two events, announced this month that it would sell the majority of the two million tickets for the Paralympics for upwards of a fiver. The hope is that families and large groups of schoolchildren will take advantage of the opportunity to experience Olympic venues at good value prices, sample a variety of Paralympic sports and go away enthused.

David Weir, one of the most high-profile British Paralympians and on a long winning streak that takes in the New York Marathon and the London Marathon, said some of the benefits of hosting the Games had already been felt in terms of the increased funding that flows through UK Sport.

In what seems a missed opportunity, Weir and the other British wheelchair racers are competing in Switzerland this week rather than in Manchester. But the 31-year-old said he could already feel excitement building and had witnessed a step change since Beijing in terms of the level of support: “I wouldn’t have been able to be where I am now without Lottery funding and the support of physios, doctors, sports psychologists and nutritionists. It’s been a big change,” he said.

Meanwhile, sponsors and Channel 4 – who have gambled £9m on screening the Paralympics – are working out how to balance the desire of athletes and governing bodies to focus on elite sport with the aim of broadening its appeal and explaining sports such as goalball and Boccia in audience-friendly ways. Then there is the challenge of describing the classification system that groups athletes according to their level of disability.

“People are interested, they want to know more about these sports. You are not going to see them day in, day out. We’re a sport loving nation and I think it will be something different,” Weir said.

Tim Hollingsworth, the former chief operating officer at funding agency UK Sport, will take over as chief executive at Paralympics GB in July and will have just over 12 months to prepare it for the event that will have a hugely disproportionate effect on the way disabled sport and athletes are perceived. The opportunity is huge, but so is the risk. As with the Olympics, the government has made boldly ambitious legacy promises for the job the Paralympics could do in shifting public perceptions of disability.

“In addition to winning medals a home Games also gives us a fantastic opportunity to lead the world in another sense, by using the Games to inspire a shift in perceptions of disability sport and disability,” said Reddish. “We want to use the unprecedented interest in the British Paralympic team to give our athletes the recognition they deserve, so that by the time the British team enters the stadium at the opening ceremony, the British public sees the team as the elite athletes they are.”

Those at the sharp end are optimistic. David Roberts, a swimmer who will be looking to overhaul Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s record haul of Paralympic golds in London but is recuperating from injury, said he could already feel the escalation in interest and believed Britain was “light years ahead in terms of its appreciation of Paralympic sport”.

Sir Philip Craven, the chairman of the International Paralympic Committee, is confident London would deliver. “This change of perception has happened at every Paralympic Games I’ve been involved with since 1992. You can bring in all the laws you want to force people to accept a minority, whether that’s race relations or people with a perceived disability,” he said. “But you need something very positive to really change people’s perceptions. You can’t force them, you have to allow them to be enlightened. When you see such tremendous elite performance, that is what happens.”

At the launch of the ticket prices, Grey-Thompson and others spoke about the distance that had been travelled since Paralympic athletes performed in all but empty stadiums without TV cameras. The scale of the London event will be bigger than anything that has gone before. The goal for Paralympic sport, and the bodies that oversee them, will be to rise to that challenge.

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