Rio Paralympics kick off with high hopes and high demand
“It’s helped by the fact that the Brazilian team did so well in the final weekend of the Olympics,” Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee, said. “It gave the Cariocas a flavor of what they can expect here in Rio with the Brazilian team chasing a top five finish in the medals table.”
Spence and Mario Andrada, the spokesman for the local organizing committee, were joined by three track and field stars - Tatyana McFadden of the United States, Ireland’s Jason Smyth and Marlou van Rhijn of the Netherlands - and gave an upbeat assessment of a games that faced severe budget shortfalls and concerns about accessibility for the disabled athletes.
The IPC and Rio 2016 committee organizers tried to assure the world that preparations are going smoothly, though neither promised the best Paralympics ever, four years after a games in London that were considered a turning point in sports for people with disabilities.
“It’s impossible in the modern era to have a glitch-free games - you haven’t seen any in history,” Andrada said. “As far as Rio 2016 is concerned, we hope to learn from the IPC as much as we learn from the IOC. We hope we can react to our glitches and, eventually, our mistakes as fast as we did during the Olympic Games.”
McFadden plans to try and win an unprecedented seven gold medals in wheelchair racing, from the 100 meters to the marathon, in her fourth summer Paralympic Games.
She credited the Fill The Seats campaign, a drive to buy and donate tickets to young people, for some of the momentum in Rio. The effort has received donations from McFadden herself, as well as Coldplay and Prince Harry.
Spence said that, overall, organizers are now selling around 40,000 tickets per day and expect to overtake Beijing’s sale of 1.7 million tickets total, making Rio the second best-attended Paralympics behind London 2012.
After over a month delay, travel grants were finally being paid Tuesday for all of the countries, easing a worry that some nations couldn’t afford to send athletes to Rio. After the news conference, Spence said there were now athletes from 159 countries on the ground in Brazil, plus two “independent” refugee athletes.
Eighty-four Russian athletes lost their bid to compete as individuals on Tuesday in a German court ruling, a legal bid that followed the IPC’s ban on the entire Russian team for systematic doping.
“We are confident that the decision we have made is the correct decision,” Spence said. “It’s our job as the IPC to ensure fair competition and a level playing field for all athletes. We believe that with the current circumstances we cannot achieve that if there is Russian participation here at the Paralympic Games.”
The organizers and athletes also hope these games leave behind a legacy of accessibility. In 2015, as a precursor to the games, then-Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff signed into law the Inclusion of People with Disabilities Act, which provides funding nationwide for the elimination of accessibility barriers.
“What the games need to be is a catalyst for that change to continue afterwards,” Spence said.
He then offered a list of examples, such as the new airport terminal and training facility for disabled athletes in Sao Paulo.
“There is a lot of accessibility being improved around the city,” he said.