The Rio 2016 organising committee in Brazil has given a flagrant two-finger salute to the Paralympics, due to begin in just over two weeks’ time. The Games will, sadly, be remembered for abject failure — save for the sensational performances of the athletes, no doubt, who will be forced to compete in adversity with venues closed and service levels slashed.
Parlous planning and a lack of understanding and interest in the Paralympics has resulted in pathetic 12 per cent ticket sales, lack of sponsors and a Games fighting for its life, with many nations unable to attend through the non-payment of travel grants. The budget has been plundered to fix utterly avoidable problems in the Olympics — the most colourful, and crass, being the accidental dyeing of the diving pool.
Worse still, all of this was foreseeable. There was no interest in learning from London, but instead a misguided desire to “do it ourselves”. A few years ago, some time after Rio won the right to host the Games, the operating chief at the time told me confidently: “We don’t need to have a specific person on the director’s team. We are all responsible for the Paralympics.” Very true, they are — responsible not for tickets sold out but for a sell-out of the Games.
The economic backdrop has been blamed for this disaster. And if it were the case, who wouldn’t sympathise? But it’s not. Though the Olympics faced some cuts, they were as mere flesh wounds compared with the slicing, the hanging-drawing-and-quartering of the Paralympics.
At London, we needed to transform attitudes among the public to enable all the tickets to be snapped up and the Games to become a broadcasting and sponsorship success. But today’s calamity is not about 2012, it’s about the kind of Games that could have been, and should have been, in Rio.
Can the Brazilians rescue it? So much at this stage is effectively beyond repair. The outstanding travel grants should be paid immediately, whatever the cost: for teams not even to reach the Games would be both tragedy and travesty.
For the future we have to look east, with hope, to Tokyo 2020: their challenge is mountainous in taking the Games back to the level where it is worthy of the professionalism and performances of the world’s Paralympians.
Lord Holmes of Richmond was director of Paralympic Integration for London 2012. He won nine swimming Paralympic gold medals 1988-2000.