TOKYO — A Paralympic swimmer trained for a while in the chilly Arkansas River after the coronavirus pandemic cut off her access to a swimming pool.
Another borrowed a swim bench, set it up in her Minnesota garage, and simulated her strokes against the resistance of a pulley system. It was the closest she could get to propelling herself through water.
And in Cardiff, Wales, a shot put champion improvised by stretching a cargo net between apple and pear trees so he could practice safely in the yard of his new home.
Months later, those three athletes – Sophia Herzog, Mallory Weggemann and Aled Sion Davies – have joined about 4,400 other participants in Tokyo for the 16th Summer Paralympics, which begin Tuesday. Like the thousands of Olympians who competed here weeks ago, the Paralympians will be going to fields, courts and courses a year late, without spectators and under the threat of contagion that, at least by the level of viewership, has plagued so many other major sporting events of the past. one and a half year.
However, the Paralympic Games could be the rare athletic spectacle to reach significantly higher levels of engagement during the pandemic, accelerating momentum in a way that old guard sports can’t. A restlessness caused by multiple lockdowns, coupled with the cultural democratization shaped by social media, has fueled a shift in values and tastes, especially among young people, that emphasizes the overlooked and undervalued.
Darlene Hunter, a wheelchair basketball player for the United States who teaches disability classes at the University of Texas at Arlington, recently said that in the five years since the last Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, she has seen a growing interest in the Games and a better understanding of them. . In the past, she regularly had to explain what the Paralympics and her team’s gold medal in 2016 meant.
“People know what it is now,” Hunter said as she prepared for her third Games. “People are talking about it. People hear it like no other time.”
Significant changes over the past five years include equal prize money for U.S. Paralympic medalists, who used to receive one-fifth of what their Olympic counterparts got ($37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for silver, and $15,000 for bronze), and an expansion of coverage by television and streaming services. That availability has been aided to some extent by the decision of the International Paralympic Committee to waive its rights fees in dozens of countries in sub-Saharan Africa and to help produce coverage for broadcasters there.
NBCUniversal, the longtime Olympic and Paralympic network in the United States, has committed to 1,200 hours of coverage on its television channels and streaming platforms, after showing just 70 hours from Brazil in 2016 and five and a half from the 2012 London Games. is the first prime-time coverage of the Paralympics on NBC’s main channel, spanning four hours over three highlights.
And in another nod to the elevation of adaptive sports for people with disabilities, the US Olympic Committee has become the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“We’ve Arrived,” Jessica Long, a swimmer who has won 13 gold medals and will compete in her fifth Paralympic Games, told NewsMadura when the name change was announced in 2019.
But resources for the Paralympians, from news media coverage to sponsorship deals, barely approach what is available to Olympians. The cavernous main press center in Tokyo is now a desert, and searching for Paralympic news online usually yields news reports from the organizers of the Games. And while the prize money for American athletes has been equalized, some of the benefits are not.
With spectators barred from Tokyo, the USOPC hosted viewing parties for two family members or friends per athlete. There were four Olympic meetings, each spanning five days, but only one was scheduled for the Paralympic Games. After some Paralympics and their relatives noticed the discrepancy, they said a second viewing party had been added.
The standard for the Tokyo Paralympics to surpass would be the London Paralympics in 2012. Athletes to this day rave about the overcrowded, knowledgeable crowd, as well as the spirit of that gathering, fueled in part by Britain’s history as the birthplace of adaptive sports and by Channel 4’s often brutal coverage, which BBC surpassed for rights to the competition.
On the last day of the London Olympics, the presumed main attraction that summer, Channel 4 put up billboards around the city to promote the Paralympics. “Thanks for the warm-up,” they said.
At the time, people with disabilities made up about 50 percent of the station’s coverage team. For the Tokyo Games, Channel 4’s share is estimated at just over 70 percent.
“They have revolutionized British television,” said Craig Spence, head of communications for the International Paralympic Committee. “Before that London 2012 coverage, we didn’t really see people with disabilities in TV programs or current affairs presenters. Now it is. Every other broadcaster in Britain has realized they were onto something.”
That kind of acceptance has not always been part of the history of the Paralympic Games, not least when the Soviet Union refused to host a parallel Games to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, allegedly after a top Russian official claimed that there were no invalids in the country. The Paralympic Games moved to the Netherlands that year. Now there is an award-winning film about them.
“Rising Phoenix”, a 2016 Netflix documentary that focused on nine Paralympics, was produced by Greg Nugent, the marketing director of the London Paralympic Games, and Tatyana McFadden, a six-time American Paralympic star who is also one of the stars of the film. is.
Nugent said he made the film partly in hopes of making the Paralympics indispensable, rather than as an event that might succeed in one city, only to falter four years later in the next.
“I wanted to make it morally impossible for a future organizing committee to actually pass judgment that the Paras would be less than the Olympics,” he said.
His concerns were confirmed as the 2016 Games approached. As political and economic turmoil gripped Brazil, organizers in Rio considered hosting only the Olympics. A government bailout allowed the Paralympic Games to go ahead, but three weeks before the Games, only 12 percent of tickets had been sold.
McFadden and Nugent started a campaign called Fill the Seats to buy Paralympic tickets for Brazilian schoolchildren, with promotional and financial help from Prince Harry and the band Coldplay. In the end, crowds did come to Rio, Brazilians won 14 gold medals and the film took home two Sports Emmys.
The Tokyo Paralympic Games start under a very different cloud, and also under a new umbrella.
On Thursday night, just days before the opening ceremony, more than 125 landmarks around the world — including the rainbow bridge in Tokyo and the Empire State Building in New York — bathing in purple, the color that has long represented the disabled community. The screening marked the beginning of a 10-year anti-discrimination campaign led by multiple organizations, including the International Paralympic Committee.
Called WeThe15, in reference to the estimated 15 percent of the world’s population living with some form of disability, the campaign formed a coalition of groups that often had very different agendas.
“We’ve seen other movements like LBGTQ, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement,” Andrew Parsons, the chairman of the IPC, told The Associated Press last week, “and we need a similar movement for individuals with disabilities. physical disability.”