Bring the Paralympics into the spotlight
This past Sunday night, Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia came alive one last time for an inspiring display of acrobatics, stunts and dances. Fans from around the world packed the stadium for support as their nations’ athletes took one last lap around the stadium to officially close out the Winter Olympic season. The crowd went wild as athlete Aleksey Chuvashev climbed a 50-foot rope to add an apostrophe to a light display of the word “Impossible” to make it read “I’m Possible.” This awe-inspiring spectacle was the closing ceremony of the 2014 Paralympics, and chances are you didn’t watch it or even realize it existed.
Immediately after every Summer and Winter Olympics, the host country puts on another international athletic competition: the Paralympics. The Paralympics are the highest level of international competition for athletes with physical disabilities. The Summer and Winter Paralympics feature dozens of exciting events, from wheelchair basketball to adaptive rowing to alpine skiing to the incredibly violent wheelchair rugby. The competition originated for disabled World War II veterans to compete in sports on an international level but has grown to cater to athletes with a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities. I grew up down the street from a U.S. Paralympic training center, and I can testify from watching the U.S. wheelchair basketball team play a few games that seeing disabled athletes train and compete at such a high level is truly inspirational.
The Paralympics are a unique, inspirational and important part of the international Olympic movement but usually receive very little funding or media attention. In 2012, the only coverage of the two-week event in the United States was five hours of tape-delay footage on the cable-only NBC Sports Network. Many Olympic athletes have a hard enough time as it is earning enough money to compete at an international level. Paralympians have an even harder time because the lack of media coverage means almost no sponsorship money. The Paralympics will never have the same broad media appeal or bring in the same amount of money as the Olympics, but I think a very simple solution could go a long way toward reducing the gap: hosting the Paralympics before, instead of after, the regular Olympics.
Currently, the host nation of the Olympics stages the Paralympics in the two or three weeks immediately following the Olympic closing ceremony. But by this point, the host country and the world generally have Olympic fatigue. The major storylines have all run their course, the host city is usually absolutely trashed and people are tired of watching. The Olympic season ends with a fizzle instead of a bang. However, if the Paralympics were hosted in the two weeks immediately preceding the Olympics, television ratings could go up across the board. As it is now, there’s a pretty sizable time gap between the Olympic trials—which usually receive significant airtime, at least in the U.S.—and the actual Olympics. Staging the Paralympics between the trials and actual Olympics would draw more attention to Paralympians and help television networks conserve momentum and viewership. They could set up the storylines and athletes that people want to follow during the trials, keep people engaged with coverage of the Paralympics and then have more momentum and excitement going into the actual Olympics.
This solution would also help the host nation get its logistics squared away before Olympic-sized crowds show up. If Russia had hosted the Paralympics before the regular Olympics, it could have avoided a lot of international embarrassment by realizing and fixing its hotel and logistical problems before enormous crowds showed up in Sochi for the opening ceremony.
Just think of how much more climactic the Olympic closing ceremony could be if it occurred after both the Paralympic and Olympic Games. Athletes from both Games could participate and help create a truly inspirational event that could surpass even the most popular opening ceremonies in terms of viewership. Hosting the Paralympics before the Olympics would give Paralympians the respect and attention they deserve and give the Olympic season the climactic ending it deserves.