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Paralympics count on team effort to create Paris Games breakout

The 2024 Paralympics will take place in Paris this summer. Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP

Paralympic organisers, with a cast of compelling athletes and a record-breaking broadcasting deal, are hoping this year’s Paris Games can mark a breakout. 

The 22-sport event, which starts in just over 100 days and will be screened in 160 nations and territories, has long sought wider audiences.

And with Paris 2024 officials promising “iconic” Games with the City of Light as a telegenic backdrop, the stage has been set for the top names in para sport to shine.

They include competitors such as Bebe Vio, an Italian fencer with more than a million followers on Instagram, and the American “armless archer” Matt Stutzman whose technique in firing arrows or driving cars with his feet have made him an internet sensation. 

Others include German “blade jumper” Markus Rehm and 18-year-old Japanese wheelchair tennis champion Tokito Oda.

The one para star to break into the mainstream was the since-disgraced sprinter Oscar Pistorius at the 2012 London Olympics.

Becoming a global star would require personality, sporting prowess and institutional support, say experts.

“You need to start a virtuous circle in which all stakeholders play their role,” said Magali Tezenas, director general of Sporsora, a French sponsorship management agency. 

“The media, sponsors, the institutions, organisers and the athletes who emerge, speak publicly and dare to go into the media,” she added. 

Fallen star

In 2012, Pistorius, a double amputee, elevated interest in Paralympians through the technology he employed – his famed running blades — and by competing against able-bodied runners.

After debate about the impact of his prosthetic legs and whether they conferred an advantage, Pistorius was authorised to run in the London Olympics 400m where he qualified for the semi-finals. 

Later, Pistorius was convicted of killing his girlfriend in 2017 and received  a 13-year jail sentence after a lengthy trial and several appeals. He was released from jail on parole in January.

“This desire to run with able-bodied athletes created a controversy which helped make his name,” Tezenas said, adding that Pistorius’s blades had become “commonplace” in para sport.

German long jumper Rehm has so far been denied access to the Olympics because of concerns over his blade, with his performances regularly in excess of non-para competitors.

Team effort

Ticket sales for the Paris Paralympics have been sluggish, with places still available for most events even at low prices such as 15 euros ($16). 

At previous Games many purchases took place closer to the start once the preceeding Olympics had whipped up enthusiasm in the host city.

For Joel Jeannot, a long-distance wheelchair racing champion and coach, having the burden of promoting the Paralympics shared among several leading figures rather than one figurehead like Pistorius is healthy.

“Does parasport need one person today to be well known or is it that there are lots of people working for the promotion, recognition and inclusion of people living with handicaps?” the Frenchman told AFP. 

“I think there are a lot of people working in this direction and I’d say that it’s not such a bad thing.”

He said the London Paralympics were a turning point in terms of promoting the event and raising awareness about the competition.

“I’m convinced that in a few years there will be four or five well-known figures in the whole world and people will want to follow them because they have incredible stories,” said French para swimmer Theo Curin, who also models and presents a kids’ TV show. 

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