Forget what you thought you knew about humans

The popularity of Paralympians is at an all-time high. John Murray investigates how the sporting event is being accepted and invested in all over the world

Those that watch British television won’t fail to remember the Channel 4 advert for London’s 2012 Paralympic Games. To the blaring horns of Public Enemy’s ‘Harder Than You Think’, Paralympians such as Jonny Coggan (wheelchair rugby) and Ellie Simmonds (swimming) were pictured in training for feats beyond normal endurance. The tagline?

“Forget everything you thought you knew about strength. Forget everything you thought you knew about humans. It’s time to do battle.”

Echoing the UK’s enthusiastic takeup has been Russia and China, who are also investing heavily to become prominent performers on the Paralympic stage. But it is not all about success at elite level. Not only does the financial support give athletes a sporting chance, it also creates awareness for their cause, and hopefully changes attitudes too.   

This was never more evident than at London 2012 where the Paralympic Games were an enormous, if somewhat unexpected, success. The 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium was sold out night after night for the athletics events, with several British competitors becoming household names and Brazilian sprinter Alan Oliveira making such an impression that he is now one of the faces of Rio 2016. In the aftermath, Great Britain increased their funding for the next Games by 43 per cent.

Forget what you thought you knew about humans
Designed by American inventor and amputee Van Phillips in the 1970s, running blades are made from 80 layers of carbon fibre, each thinner than a human hair

The benefits are not reserved for athletes alone. China has an estimated 83 million people with a disability. In the build-up to Beijing 2008, the country poured funds into its Paralympic programme, bringing disability into the public eye and improving the city’s disabled facilities at the same time.

It was a similar story in Russia earlier this year, where 45 countries – the most in the history of the Paralympic Winter Games – competed at Sochi. International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President, Sir Philip Craven, believes there will be wide-reaching effects in Russia. “If you look at how the Paralympic movement has developed since the 1990s, this is a game-changer and a changer for the lives of probably 10 per cent of the Russian population,” he said.

Paralympics in the emirates

Much has changed in the two decades since Ali Saif wrote his name into the United Arab Emirates’ sporting history. In Barcelona in 1992, as the sole member of his country’s delegation, the weightlifter became the first Emirati athlete to compete in the Paralympic Games.

Since that historic day, disability sport in the UAE has experienced notable growth. Saif proved to be a trailblazer for the Paralympics, with many athletes following his lead. At Sydney in 2000, the nation won its first medals, all four coming in athletics. Four years later in Athens, powerlifting champion Mohammed Khamis Khalaf became its first gold medallist – a feat later matched in 2012 by shooter Abdullah Sultan Al Aryani, who had previously represented the nation in the 1996 Olympic Games before being involved in a serious car accident.

Forget everything you thought you knew about strength. Forget everything you thought you knew about humans. It’s time to do battle

Channel 4 advert , London 2012 Paralympics

While Al Aryani’s triumph in London was a huge achievement, arguably the most significant recent development came in April when His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced a new funding plan. The Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai ordered a grant of Dh6 million for the nation’s disability sport, which will give athletes the opportunity to participate in sports events.

The grant will provide a huge boost at local, regional and international levels, and is the latest example of growing support for disability sport. The Dubai Club for the Disabled organises an increasing number of major events, with the IPC 2014 Powerlifting World Championships being singled out for praise by Philip Craven earlier this year.