For decades, the Paralympics were perceived in popular consciousness as the forgotten cousin of the Olympics, held in the afterglow of the main event, after the tourists, TV cameras, and journalists have left. Yet if recent trends are any indication, the Paralympics could soon share the same pedestal as the Olympics. Granted, it is more rumor than reality, but not out of the realm of possibility.
With technological advances that give athletes with disabilities more tools to stay fit and become ultra-competitive in the sporting world, and the increased recognition of the incredible resources and energies that Paralympic athletes put into their work purely because of their love of sport (Oscar Pistorius, Aimee Mullins, and Jonas Jacobsson are some examples), the Paralympic Games are beginning to attain the status of star attraction. This has strong implications for marketing to people with disabilities: these athletes make for compelling TV viewing, redefining the way the disability market is portrayed among marketers and advertising agencies.
This year, the Paralympics in London will be held from August 29 to September 9, after the Olympics, in the same sporting venues. The head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, will open both the Olympics and the Paralympics. Given the significance of 2012 in the Queen’s reign, with the Diamond Jubilee festivities celebrating her 60th anniversary on the British throne, and the Olympics following one month later, it is a credit to the Queen to honor the Paralympics on the same level as the two other state occasions on her schedule.
In fact, the official London 2012 website has information about both the Olympics and Paralympics, with web accessibility features incorporated into the layout for those with disabilities who have difficulty navigating the website.
Most provocatively, there is talk afoot about merging the Paralympics with the Olympics. While the structure of a merged Olympics-Paralympics arrangement is not clear (most likely, the Paralympic events would be hosted in the same venues as Olympic events, on the Olympic schedule), this would be a recognition of the athleticism and passion of the Paralympians.
As expected, there is skepticism on whether this arrangement would work, as a BBC World Service poll, published today, shows. The poll results portray an interesting pattern: respondents in countries with higher gold-medal hauls were generally less supportive of an Olympics-Paralympics merger than respondents in countries with fewer gold medals. Even Britain’s most successful Paralympian, Baroness Tanni Gray Thompson, is opposed to the idea, fearing that the Paralympics would “disappear off the face of the earth.”
My response to the possibility of an Olympics-Paralympics merger is, “Why not?” Yes, it means more athletes filling the stadiums and the Olympic Village, resulting in more outlays and more infrastructure. Yet, think of the possibilities a merged event would create: more accessible design features in the Village, across all the sporting venues, and on the Web. This elevates the business case for accessibility since these features can be reused and/or copied elsewhere, providing access to up to 25% of the population who would otherwise be denied access both physically and economically.
The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Athletes with disabilities strive for this motto, just as able-bodied athletes do. They deserve this level of recognition on the same stage, under the same bright lights, in front of the same crowds, as able-bodied Olympians do. This recognition can rewrite the cultural view of people with disabilities, by eliminating negative perceptions of this significant segment of the world’s population, and effectively increasing the segment’s economic potential.