‘Paralympics need more media attention’

Sponsors for athletes with disabilities will arrive faster with more extensive coverage, explain two Paralympic athletes in an interview with EURACTIV.

Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson has dominated wheelchair athletics for more than a decade with 11 Paralympic gold medals and 30 world records. In addition to her sporting achievements she has also helped to raise the profile of disabled sport through her media work.

Aron Anderson is the youngest member of Swedish national sledge hockey team and has also competed for his country in sailing and athletics. 

The two Paralympic athletes, sponsored by Visa, took part in the meeting of the European Parliament’s Sports intergroup and Disability intergroup on 29 November 2006 to explain the situation of access to sport for people with disabilities. 

In an interview with EURACTIV, the two athletes explain the obstacles that people with disabilities face while wanting to participate in sports and what they believe the EU could do to improve the situation. 

To start with, both athletes emphasise the need to raise awareness about Paralympics. “Media and public perception of the Paralympic games was not very good at the beginning (late 80s’). I’ve seen a big change since but there’s still a long way to go in raising awareness of the Paralympics in terms of support for young athletes,” said Grey-Thompson.  

Is raising awareness about Paralympics the only way to improve disabled peoples’ access to sports? Shouldn’t we raise awareness also at association level? 

Grey-Thompson: It is hard for disabled people to do sports at recreational level, because of physical access as well as the attitudes of people who run sport clubs and centres. It is very hard for young people to get integrated into sports clubs. 

Anderson: In addition, Paralympics is the best and we need to show to people what we can do, so that people don’t see the limits but what we can do with limits. 

Grey-Thompson: A lot parents of disabled children have low expectations and if the parents have low expectations because of the attitudes to disability, because the whole term of disability is about what you can’t do, then if schools exclude disabled people and you are not expected to wok if you are a disabled person then you’ll never do sports. It is about changing the whole line of attitudes towards disabled people.

Are there any other ways to increase the possibilities for disabled people to do sports? 

Grey-Thompson: Every new sports facility or infrastructure that is being built should have access to people with disabilities. 

Anderson: Many new places have access but the older places don’t. And that is a problem. Because every person should have the right to train and do sports, and now we can’t. 

Are there differences between the member states in respect to funding Paralympics? 

Anderson: There are huge differences. Governments support the Olympic games far more than the Paralympics. And the national federations for regular Olympic sports are lot better in bringing in sponsors than the federations for disabled sports, because Olympics is focused on elite sports whereas disabled sport is more focused on that everybody should be able to do sports and does not have a focus on elite sport. Paralympic committees should bring in as much money as do the Olympic ones as they are both about elite sports. 

What can the EU do? 

Grey-Thompson: It is about national governments’ sport ministries understanding that disabled people should be competing. It is about access to sport. It is about people practicing sport to be healthier. Physical activity can be used in so many ways to target government agendas – it just need to move up the priority list. So the EU can influence the national governments by sending out the right messages. Governments need to spend more money on accessibility. 

Anderson: We need more funding for Paralympics, we need to raise awareness and integrate rehabilitation with sports to get more disabled people into sports, because it is not just fun, it is also about wellbeing. 

What role do you see for disabled sport in the upcoming EU White Paper on sport? 

Anderson: I really think that Paralympics should not be seen as disabled sports but individual sport – like wheelchair racing, sledge hockey or whatever. We should not see them as disabled sport. 

Grey-Thompson: Disability sport should be seen as something as serious as Olympic sports. 

What is the role for voluntary sports association for people with disabilities?

Grey-Thompson: In the UK at least, a lot of disability sport is run by volunteers. Millions of pounds of work each year is done by volunteers. If volunteers feel they get something out of it – that they’re appreciated and part of European sport – then it is better for everyone. It is about recognising the value and having qualifications and people feeling good about what they’re doing, because they volunteer. 

Anderson: Also, in Sweden, most sport is run by volunteers. 

What is the role of sponsors, such as VISA, for you and the Paralympics in general? 

Grey-Thompson: When people see that VISA is sponsoring Paralympics then it gives credibility, because VISA would never throw its money to something that does not work. It helps us to show the world that we should be taken seriously. The money is important but it is also about credibility and changing attitudes. 

Anderson: It is about showing that Olympics and Paralympics are equal. We need media coverage to get sponsors, because sponsors want media attention. And if we can’t get sponsors, then we can’t train as much as we want. 

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