What are the legacies of the Paralympic Games?

By Andrea

It’s been almost two years since the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics and it’s just under a year until the 2012 London Paralympics. For those of us who call Vancouver home, it’s pretty much back to business as usual. The Games may have taken seven years to plan but the tear down was amazingly efficient! That being said, traces of the Games remain – the blue volunteer jackets are still very much in evidence, the new Canada Line to the airport is part of the daily commute and the Olympic Oval is now a community sport centre.

But the question I have for you today is: What are the legacies of the PARALYMPIC GAMES? What could they be? What should they be?

Here’s a bit of background info to get you thinking.

In the context of the Olympics and other mega sporting events, the concept of legacies is not new. Successful bid committees are those who are able to demonstrate that their hosting of the event will have a positive impact on the host community in terms of social legacies, environmental legacies and economic legacies. For example, the organizers of the 2012 London Games claim their event will result in the creation of one of the largest urban parks in Europe, the development of new housing for key workers such as teachers and nurses, the expansion and improvement of the London transit system and a myriad of other legacies related to culture, sport, volunteering, business and tourism (London 2012). Additionally, host societies make a commitment to the brand. They agree to promote the values of the Olympic movement and strive for the ‘best games ever’ and their legacy (theoretically at least) is to ensure the continued prestige of the event and set the bar high for future hosts

But identifying what legacies are specific to the Paralympic Games is a far more difficult task. First of all, since the signing of the ‘One bid, one city’ agreement between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, there is now one host responsible for both events. While this agreement has many interesting consequences (which we look forward to exploring in future blog posts!), the one I am interested in discussing today is how this arrangement impacts what we consider the legacies of the Paralympic Games. With this decision, effectively ALL legacies are Paralympic legacies… and simultaneously NO legacies can be directly attributed to the Paralympics. For example, hosting a Paralympic Games certainly results in the construction of more accessible facilities  (a considerable amount of time and money was spent in Vancouver making sure all the new facilities had level entries and designated seating for wheelchair users). But should it really take a Paralympics to ensure that buildings are being built to accessibility standards? Shouldn’t these same considerations apply when building any arena or stadium? If Vancouver hosted only the Olympic Games, would these facilities not be accessible?

Some would argue that the legacy of a Paralympic Games is in challenging perceptions about disability and what people with a disability are capable of doing. Theoretically this should lead to less discrimination and increased opportunities for people with a disability – for example, more employers may be more inclined to hire a person with a disability. However, there is very little evidence-based research indicating that this actually happens. How do we measure ‘less discrimination’?

Finally, changing attitudes among the general public is one thing but what are the effects of hosting a Paralympic Games on people with a disability? Can we make the argument that watching a Paralympic athlete may inspire other individuals with a disability to try a sport or become more active? Certainly when promoting the benefits of hosting an Olympic Games there is a lot of rhetoric around what this will do for the nation’s youth. I personally took up rowing after watching Silken Laumann compete in 1992 at the Olympics – maybe there is a young amputee out there who watched Lauren Woolstencroft win her five golds and decided to take up skiing?

But are we leaving Paralympic legacies up to chance rather than strategically planning for outcomes? Are we making the assumption that hosting the Paralympics is a ‘good thing’ and confusing the feel good moment that comes from watching someone achieving his/her dream with real strides forward in the broader struggle for equal rights and equal access?

And so I ask you – what do you see as the legacy (actual or hoped for!) of the Paralympic Games?

Note: For those interested in further reading there’s a new book on the market addressing exactly this topic! Paralympic Legacies is edited by David Legg (president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee) and Keith Gilbert (Director of the Centre for Disability, Sport and Health at the University of East London) and is available at Amazon.