Disability and Sport: Will the 2012 Paralympics Legacy be Lost in 2020?
The Stoke Mandeville Games were founded by Ludwig Guttmann – a pioneer in spinal cord injury treatment. He believed that sport could elevate disabled people’s self-worth, and improve mental health as much as physical health. Guttmann was right, and his games would go on to become the Paralympics; one of the most anticipated and highly regarded sporting events in the world.
Thanks to Guttmann’s contribution, disability sports became more visible, more talked about and more empowered than ever. The 2012 games in London set a new precedent, delivering one of the most memorable, powerful campaigns in living memory.
After years of austerity and future Olympic cities with few accessibility credentials, has that legacy been lost?
The Significance of the London 2012 Paralympics – Once in a Lifetime?
Sport has powerful effects on the human body and mind. The power of sport extends far beyond what it can do for individual disabled people. It has a community-building effect that can change hearts and minds, effectively bringing about real-world change. The London Paralympics in 2012 had that exact effect, portraying disability like never before.
The coverage of the games was held in the same stead as that of the Olympics by Channel 4, and was delivered with a powerful marketing campaign – Meet the Superhumans – that presented Paralympians alongside disabled artists, musicians and performers, as more than just their disability.
It was perhaps the first time that disabled people were front and centre on the world stage; not for charity, not for pity, not as “inspiration porn” – but for power and parity. It was a massive cultural shift that could be felt all over the nation. It challenged the Olympics, almost overshadowing it in the days running up to the games.
The world was profoundly changed by the Paralympics, even if only briefly, for the better. In the years since the Paralympics, disability spending in the UK has been significantly cut, with many branding the cuts to welfare as evil.
In times of austerity, disabled people took the biggest hit. It has been a crushing blow after the incredible tour de force of the Paralympic games, a show of solidarity and empowerment that has yet to be repeated.
In 2016, the Rio games were marred by major funding cuts and the first ever death of a Paralympian during competition, and the first death in an Olympiad event since 1960.
The Tokyo 2020 games, even before they’ve begun, have been damaging to disabled sport. Tokyo is not noted for its wheelchair accessibility – and Team GB was stunned to learn that some hotels hosting Paralympians were charging for accessibility conversions, and charging again to undo the work.
This bizarre requirement to undo the conversions has since been overturned, but it has darkened an event that, just eight years ago, had enlightened the world, transforming the perception of disabled people.
Looking to the Future – of Disabled Sport
Paris will host the 2024 Paralympics. Public transport in the city is currently regarded as hostile to disabled people, with hardly any accessible metro stations in the entire city. So much needs to change in Paris for disabled people that it’s hard to know where to begin, but hopefully there’ll be proper reform before the games begin, lest there be another fiasco.
Perhaps, though, these big ticket events are the wrong place to look. The Stoke Mandeville Games was a grassroots movement that became the hulking giant of sport that it is today - and in its huge size, has lost the agility it once had to be a bringer of change.
The grassroots leagues springing up today – particularly in wheelchair rugby, quad rugby and events like the Invictus Games – are arguably more exciting and promising than the shadowy fall from grace of the Paralympics.
We hope that in time, disability in sport will become more mainstream, with a general appeal like that of the 2012 Paralympics. We believe that it could happen, with the backing and presence that the 2012 games inspired; capturing the world’s attention once again.
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