There have been few good news stories in sport through this young century to match the rise and rise of the para-sport movement. From the Games at Sydney 2000 to recent events in Rio and PyeongChang, the Paralympics have emerged not just as a compelling human and sporting postscript to the Olympics but as a dynamic international brand in their own right.
The Paralympic Games themselves were augmented by a growing wave of single-sport events, culminating in the record-breaking London 2017 World Para-Athletics Championships last summer, and a series of increasingly successful commercial partnerships with the likes of BP, Allianz, and British broadcaster Channel 4. These helped to define a new identity for para-sport – one that brought the extraordinary stories and world class talents of its athletes to the fore – and capitalised on burgeoning excitement around each instalment.
Throughout that time the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was fronted by Sir Philip Craven (right), its second president. A gregarious and avuncular presence in global sport, the former wheelchair basketball player was also a highly focused and effective administrator. And during his acclaimed tenure, a deeper and stronger collection of operators emerged in his support.
Among them was Andrew Parsons of Brazil. Over the course of a two-decade career in Paralympic administration, headlined by a spell as the head of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee for eight years from 2009 and a four-year stint as IPC vice president from 2013 to 2017, he developed a vision for how the movement’s remarkable progress could continue. Last September, his fellow IPC members chose that vision as the one to build on Craven’s many achievements when they elected him as the new president of the organisation, ahead of Patrick Jarvis of Canada, John Petersson of Denmark and China’s Haidi Zhang.
“It’s amazing,” he says, speaking to SportsPro at SportAccord in Thailand in April. “I started in 1997 in this movement as an intern in the communications department of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee so first to be the president of the national Paralympic committee of Brazil was already an honour and a privilege, and to be able to contribute as president… As president, I am the first contributor. I’m not more important. The athletes are important; I have to be useful. And to be able to contribute at this level is amazing.”
Parsons established his campaign, and now his presidency, around what he saw as four key pillars for Paralympic development. These were the membership development, refinement of the sometimes contentious rules around athlete classification, further deepening relations between the Olympic and Paralympic movements and reinforcing ideas about the public positioning of the IPC and para-sport.
Now, one Games into his tenure, with PyeongChang overcoming fears about low ticket sales to deliver a solid winter edition in March, he can point to some promising early signs. The IPC has signed a long-term extension of its memorandum of understanding with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which not only ensured that the two would share hosts for their Games until at least 2032 but will also encourage further sharing of knowledge and best practice.
That, though, is only the start, and Parsons knows there are major challenges ahead to realise the potential of the Paralympic movement not just in future host cities but all the way across the sporting world.
Parsons on… PyeongChang 2018
“I’ve been saying that we couldn’t be happier with the results. It was the biggest Paralympic Games so far, in terms of the number of athletes, the number of countries attending, but also a good number of broadcasters and media representatives, spectators, tickets sold. New countries coming to the Paralympic Games, but also new countries winning medals. Kazakhstan won their first medal – a gold one. China won their first gold medal at the Winter Paralympics. It was amazing to see how emotional they were because they are a super-powerhouse when it comes to the Paralympics in the summer. I was there in the final match of the wheelchair curling.
“So it was amazing. I think it was a step further, because if you compare Vancouver to Sochi there was a big jump, and then Sochi to PyeongChang we grew in a more stable way. It was not that big a jump but it shows that our movement, in the winter, is also growing. Of course, the winter is a different thing. We have much less athletes than the summer; less sports. But new countries are coming, countries that are not traditionally winter sports countries.”
The PyeongChang 2018 Games solidified recent Paralympic progress but there is room for development in winter para-sport
Parsons on… his own Winter Paralympics contribution
“I was elected six months prior to the Paralympic Games so my influence was not that big, but I still paid a visit to PyeongChang a few months prior to the Games and at that time, the ticket sales were really, really low. I raised the issue really strongly with the president of the organising committee but also with the president of the country. I think they really acted upon it – we had more spectators than ever. So I think it was important at that time to be really firm on that, to say, ‘Look, we need to work here.’ As a country, as an organising committee, they then worked really hard in that sense.
“That, maybe, was my main contribution. In terms of the success of the Games, it’s difficult to say that my participation was super important.”
Parsons on… the future of winter para-sport
“I think we are on the right direction, the right pathway, but of course bringing more countries into the mix – and countries that can invest, because it’s not cheap and in many countries they don’t have snow – but also attracting more sports. We have too many snow sports, I would say. We only have wheelchair curling and para-hockey on the ice. So we are working in 2022 to have para-bobsled, which would be amazing if we are able to have it. We still have a few steps to confirm that but we are working with the international federation. There is a positive indication from our board but we still have to prove it to our board and then we need to discuss it with the OCOG and the IOC.
I think we are on the right direction, the right pathway, but of course bringing more countries into the mix – and countries that can invest, because it’s not cheap and in many countries they don’t have snow – but also attracting more sports.
“But there is a good possibility. It would be a different sport – a sliding sport. Normally, when you think of people with an impairment you don’t think of an activity like bobsled because of the potential risks it involves. So I think it will add an extra element to the programme.”
Parsons on… a new deal with the IOC
“It’s not an extension. Of course, we had agreements with the IOC before but this is different because, in sponsorship for example, we will start cooperating more, mainly when it comes to the relationship with the TOPs. The IOC will give us more support in that area. Also, we’ve now established our relationship with the Olympic Channel, which is an amazing platform. We already have some Paralympic presence on the channel but from now on it will be a different relationship, a better one.
“Also, when it comes to broadcasting and the delivery of the Paralympic Games, when it comes to the new norm of Agenda 2020; there is also a financial contribution in the agreement. So I think that we will be more aligned with the IOC. They will support us in some activities that generate funding, such as sponsorship and broadcasting. There is a direct injection of cash and it is a long-term partnership to 2032. So I think it is a very important achievement for our organisation.”
Parsons on… maintaining a distinctive identity
“We have to cooperate with the IOC – support them, for example, with initiatives and reforms like Agenda 2020. Because we are part of the same family, at the end of the day. We have a unique opportunity with this to share the host city with the IOC – something that is difficult to value. But at the same time, we have to maintain our distinctive elements because I think the strength that we have is exactly in the combination of the two Games.
“In London, they did that combination in a brilliant way. It was clear to everyone what the Olympic Games was bringing to the table, what we were bringing to the table, and the combination of the two was London 2012. So I think that’s the way to go – to be different from the IOC in a few areas. In other areas we will collaborate, we will cooperate more. In some other initiatives we will be together.
“And the agreement is exactly that: establishing how this will work, how we will make the decisions together. So it was super important. But we have to keep our own distinctive elements. We don’t want a smaller version of the Olympic Games or the IOC. It’s not what we want and it’s not what they want. We want exactly what we bring to the table because I’d say it enriches the whole sport movement and the whole experience of the Olympic and Paralympic host city.”
Parsons on… looking ahead to Tokyo 2020
“I think we have some bigger issues when it comes to dealing with an organising committee like the value they give and the understanding they have of the Paralympic Games project, and with Tokyo it’s been amazing. I think they value us on the same level as the Olympic Games. They understand exactly what I have described about London and how the combination of the two Games is strong, and how they can differentiate the Paralympics from the Olympics, creating this big festival.
We don’t want a smaller version of the Olympic Games or the IOC. It’s not what we want and it’s not what they want. We want exactly what we bring to the table because I’d say it enriches the whole sport movement and the whole experience of the Olympic and Paralympic host city.
“They understand and they want to help us in the legacy, and to monitor and measure the legacy after the Games. They know what they have to benefit from with the Paralympic Games. In a country like Japan and a city like Tokyo, accessibility is not an issue – apart from hotel rooms but this is something where they realise they have to change the legislation. It’s more the perception regarding persons with an impairment, and they understand that and we are working with them to do that.”
Parsons on… the opportunity in Asia
“With PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing, we know will never have an opportunity like that to make our presence in this continent stronger. We know these are maybe the top three countries in the region when it comes to sport, so what we are trying to do is create strategies that will make this Asian decade of Paralympic sport influence other parts of the region, and how we can work, for example, with Thailand, so that it influences the whole of the Asean area: Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam. So I have a more universal approach. One of the things I would like to do is try to make the Games provide more legacy not only to the host nation but at least to Asia and if not, the whole world, benefitting the national Paralympic committees in their own territories.
“It is completely different. It’s a massive continent. You cannot compare the south-east of Asia with the Middle East, with India and so on. It’s really different, so you have to have tailor-made strategies for each part of the continent. Of course, you can have a global perspective or a regional perspective but you cannot repeat the strategy for south-east Asia, where you have different elements of culture – we’re in a country that has Buddhism; it’s a different culture when you compare it to the United Arab Emirates.
“What we are trying to do is try and work, take advantage of the fact that we are in Asia, working with the Asian Paralympic Committee as well – which is the regional governing body – and doing our events workshops, our education efforts, and supporting the growth of the communication and broadcasting strategies and marketing strategies of the different NPCs of the region, trying to have an Asian growth.”
Parsons and IOC president Thomas Bach have deepened the relationship between their two organisations
Parsons on… building membership development
“This is something that even Philip has said to me: ‘I like this. You are ready to reach out more to the countries.’ Because I think we are an umbrella organisation. As such, we exist to serve our membership. And in serving our membership – the nations and the IFs – at the end of the day, what we are doing is enhancing the ability to provide pathways for athletes because it is the national Paralympic committees who can provide national pathways from grassroots activities, development, high-performance and post-career – which is something very important, mainly for the Paralympic athletes.
With PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing, we know will never have an opportunity like that to make our presence in this continent stronger.
“I want to take every national Paralympic committee to its next level. Of course, the next level of Kiribati, which is one of our newer members, is different from the next level of Australia; it’s different from the next level of Zimbabwe; that is different from the next level of Brazil. But I only believe in strong organisations with strong members.
“Right now, we have a top 20 of very well established national Paralympic committees and we cannot let them become a club of the top 20 here and then everybody else down there. We have more than 40 countries who sent athletes to the Rio Games based on wildcards, and we don’t want that to happen. We want the athletes to qualify because they have the quality to qualify, because they have good programmes in their nations. This is my first focus.”
Parsons on… the unique challenges of athlete classification
“We have a robust classification system in every one of the 22 summer sports and the six winter sports but it can get better. In my campaign, I have promoted the concept of professionalising classification. It doesn’t only mean paying the classifiers but professionalising the system – bringing more technology into it, trying to minimise the human error aspect.
“At the same time, we need to have a better standardisation from the national level to the international level, so if you get a classification from a national classifier in Argentina, when this athlete comes to the international arena it will be the same.”
Parsons on… getting the Paralympic positioning right
“This is a combination of branding – people understanding the Agitos in the same way that they understand the Olympic rings – and what we stand for as an organisation. To have a more vibrant brand, not only the graphic representation of it but also the organisations we are involved with, the causes we are involved with, our behaviour as an international organisation.
“Everyone talks about, ‘We have to engage with the youth, we have to engage with the youth.’ Then people think that means we have to bring in these new sports. I think it’s more a matter of how you communicate with these younger generations. They consume sport in a different way. The traditional sports structure, for them, is not appealing.
“They want sport, they want events, but it’s important not only what you do but also how. Things like transparency, openness, fair play, democracy in the decision-making processes, participation of athletes in the decision-making processes, gender equality; of course, in our case the inclusion component is key. So the sum of all of these elements, I call it ‘positioning’. I think the IPC is in a very good position to make this positioning more clear.”