POSTED: December 3rd 2012

The London Paralympics set a new benchmark for sport

The Agitos at the Cardiff City Hall where the Torch was lit / IPC
The Agitos at the Cardiff City Hall where the Torch was lit / IPC

JOHN GOODBODY / Sports Features Communications

December 3 - The London Olympics may have been a stunning success but, less predictably, the 2012 Paralympics had an impact on both the British and global public that was even more surprising. It was entirely appropriate that this leap in popularity should have taken place in London because it was in Britain that the Paralympic movement was born at Stoke Mandeville in 1948.

Clever promotion of the 2012 event, the contagious joy flowing from the Olympics themselves, the desire of the British public to salute the summer of sport, as well the genuine interest in the athletic performances all combined to make the Paralympics so memorable. This enthusiasm began in Britain and then spread across the world.

The record television audiences in Britain through Channel 4 were mirrored by those in other countries. According to figures from IFM sports, the Games were watched by a cumulative global audience of 3.4 billion people, excluding the host market. This represents a cumulated growth of almost one billion compared to 2008, also excluding the host market of China.

As Alexis Schafer, the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) Commercial and Marketing Director, said: ”To grow an international market outside of the host market in four years is a significant achievement and shows the growing global appeal of Paralympic sport and the Paralympic Games. It also highlights what a fantastic job the London organisers (Locog) did in bringing so many global broadcasters to the table and signing them on.”

So how did the Paralympics become such a triumph? Craig Spence, the IPC head of communications, says that it began with National Paralympic Day in Trafalgar Square in the centre of London, which was attended by thousands of people and then we had David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, and Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, playing wheelchair doubles tennis, something that brought extensive coverage on television and in newspapers.

Spence explains: ”Then the next day, the tickets went on sale and Locog sold a million tickets within six weeks. Never before have we sold that many tickets going into the Games. The record going into the Games had been 1.8 million and we nearly beat our record in six weeks. The momentum just snowballed.

“Going into the Games, we changed our messaging to ‘these have the potential to be the best Paralympic Games ever purely because we have all the ingredients here.’ “

So what was the special recipe to the success of the Paralympics that first captivated Britain and then spread across the world?

Spence says: ”I am not sure but I think our athletes, from a media point of view, speak from the heart. Journalists want to hear from them because they are down to earth individuals. They love them. The main thing is without getting into people’s face and saying ‘we will change the perceptions of people with a disability’, they didn’t have to say it, they just did it.”

He explained how the focus of the coverage also altered. “Before the Games, the media was writing about how athletes might have lost a leg in a war or who was born with an impairment.  This changed and the tone went to ‘what a phenomenal achievement it was to swim freestyle with no arns and to do 50 metres in 30 seconds’. People were just concentrating on the sporting achievements and saw the athletes as elite sport. And by the end of the Games enough people got it.”

The target now is to keep the momentum going with the Sochi and particularly at Rio de Janeiro, where, as Spence says, there is much more potential to change opinions. Britain has shown the level to which other countries must and should aspire.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.

Keywords · Paralympics · IPC · London 2012 · Stoke Mandeville

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