London Paralympics Historical Success

Monday, October 1, 2012

Raymond Martin, four-time gold medalist at the 2012 Paralympic Games with Bob Latham

Of the many legacies of the London Olympics, one of them does not involve the Olympics per se; rather, it involves the sequel to the Olympics: the Paralympics. And for a variety of reasons, we may look back on London 2012 as being a tipping point in Paralympic history.

First, look at the attendance. The Olympic stadium was sold out for Paralympic track events. Wheelchair rugby sold out months in advance of the competition. Full venues, great competition.

The London venues created such feel good moments during the Olympics that the locals didn’t want to let them go, and kept coming back to see events that they might not have otherwise turned out for. And once they arrived, they were hooked. Plus, quite a bit of that population had given in to pre-Olympic concerns about congestion during the Olympics, etc. and had cleared out of town, a decision I’m sure they regretted. But they could capture much of the same spirit at the Paralympics, and in the words of The Who, they would not get fooled again. It perhaps helped to fuel their interest that the Paralympics were much more affordable than the Olympics.

It is tempting to suggest that part of this newfound interest in the Paralympics is attributable to the Oscar Pistorius affect. Pistorius’s notoriety, and his presence and performance in the Olympics – including his embracing by fellow competitors – certainly caused some to focus on the Paralympics to see how he would fare. But once focused, there were so many other athletes who captured the imagination as well.

Then there was the television coverage. The coverage of the Paralympics in the UK was live and extensive and generated massive interest. This brought added exposure to the Paralympic athletes and their compelling stories, and to the competition. Unfortunately, here in the U.S., we did not have the same degree of coverage and we really missed an opportunity to be on the right side of history in that regard. I hope that is rectified by 2016, and perhaps even by Sochi 2014.

But most of all, why do we watch the Olympics in the first place? Why do we exalt with Michael Phelps’ mother? Why are we invested in Gabby Douglas’s success, knowing what sacrifices she made to be a world class athlete? Why does Lolo Jones provoke an emotional reaction? Because we know their stories. We know the challenges they have overcome. And if you want to have an even greater adult dose of overcoming challenges, welcome to the Paralympics. It has the pathos and human stories that the Olympics have, times a factor of 10. That’s what the large crowds in London saw. That’s what TV viewers in the UK were able to see, and if you were diligent in searching out coverage in the U.S. you could see as well. And those of us privileged to be part of the Olympic movement get a chance to see it in many ways. To know who these athletes are, and where they have come from, is to be completely invested in their performances. Amazing people, amazing athletes, amazing stories.

Bob with the amazing Jessica Long, current world record holder in 13 Paralympic events

I was at the USOC awards dinner in Colorado Springs on September 21, as we honored Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long and track Paralympian Raymond Martin as the U.S. Paralympic athletes of the year, each having won multiple gold medals in London. Watching the video of their triumphs that night and knowing their stories was as inspirational as anything the Olympics can provide. And the world, or at least parts of it, is appreciating that.

London not only raised the bar on how to stage an Olympics in a large and tight-fitting city, but it made a Bob Beamon-ish leap in bringing attention and excitement to the Paralympics. More kudos to you, London.

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