Recently, I overheard some boys on a bus talking about how excited they were that Westfield Stratford City – next door to the Olympic Park – was nearing completion. “Man’s gonna watch the 100m, then blow to McD’s, come back to watch the throwing ting over the shoulder (i.e. the shot put).” This continued for about seven stops. They linked everything they could potentially be doing at the Olympic Park with what was being sold at the shopping centre.
It was a few weeks later that it actually clicked. I knew more about the commercial side of the Olympics than the sports. I could reel off ten brands sponsoring it, but could I name ten athletes competing? I could, but most people would struggle after Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis. How sad is that? A home games and the vast majority have not yet been able to connect or identify with it.
The Olympic Stadium holds 80,000, and I don’t see many people showing off their tickets to the men’s 100m final. What about the other top sports? How many people do you know are going to the swimming, cycling and equestrian events? If you’re spending £9.3 billion of taxpayers’ money, at least let them attend their own party.
Now, I’ve played wheelchair basketball all over Europe for club and country and seen first-hand the impact that disability sport can have. In many places I’ve played, the wheelchair basketball team is more popular than the able-bodied basketball team. In Italy, Spain, Turkey and Germany, huge sums of money – sportswear brands, water companies, electricity suppliers or just independently wealthy figures – are put into wheelchair basketball, which crowds of 5–10,000 pay to watch. It is a model I would like to see replicated here.
The first step is having that initial interest from the public, and that’s where the Paralympics comes in. I know that when people see the sport, they will be enthralled and want more, but then it’s down to the government to invest more money and the media to give it continued exposure, even after the London games. This is one of the reasons I was so excited to become a part of the coverage team delivering the Paralympic games. I wanted to be a part of helping wheelchair basketball move on to the next level, bringing something I love to the masses.
Gaz Choudhry is a member of the Great Britain wheelchair-basketball team that will be competing in London this year. While he thinks that the Olympics are and will always be the ultimate sporting festival for the purest sports fan, he believes these London Paralympics will be the best ever. “The media have taken the Paralympics very seriously and for the first time we’re seeing it branded and treated as an equal to the Olympics. Many of the GB athletes have been in full-time training since Beijing and some as far back as Athens so they’re at their peak and ready to deliver.”
Rachael Lathem, a former Paralympic swimmer, will be reporting on the swimming for Channel 4. Rachael has seen a greater awareness of disability sport within the general public, and believes that the “media attention will increase public awareness and help create role models for younger disabled athletes.” But if reports that the government are to cut DLA (the Disability Living Allowance) are true, it won’t matter how many youngsters are inspired by the London games. A number of high-profile Paralympians have spoken about the implications the cuts will have, including wheelchair basketball bronze medallist Ade Adepitan, who said, “Without DLA, I would not have been able to become a top athlete.”
While London will not compete with Beijing for bling, it can still create sporting history. The Paralympics and Olympics are only now being treated on a par. They come from the same family and should be embraced and celebrated.
What I hope for, and predict, is the discovery of a new army of sporting fans who see the Paralympics for what it is: a no-frills sporting tournament of the highest standard, with world-class athletes, many of whom have overcome serious obstacles in life to achieve sporting excellence.
The Paralympics comes after the Olympics. As far as I’m concerned though, the Olympics are the warm-up for the main event.
Text By: Jordan Jarrett-Bryan
This piece appeared in Dazed's July issue. Come back to Dazed Digital tomorrow for more pre-Paralympics coverage