SBJ/February 6-12, 2017/Opinion

The Paralympic Games: A growth stock if ever there was one

So, we both have spent many years working and volunteering in Olympic and Paralympic sport. One of us had an amazing 18-month journey as the deputy head of the Canadian Paralympic Team for Rio 2016.

Following Rio, one thing we’ve both noticed — as many of you have — is the growth of the Paralympic movement in scale and reach. Television ratings quadrupled in the United States for 2016 over London 2012. In addition, the Canadian Paralympic Committee saw its pool of top-tier sponsors grow and their investment and activation levels nearly doubled in the same time frame.

Best of all, a few Paralympians — like Great Britain’s Jonnie Peacock, a blade runner who runs a sub-11-second 100 meters, and Morteza Mehrzadselakjani, an 8-foot-1 sitting volleyball player on Iran’s gold-medal-winning team — are taking on celebrity-level followings and could potentially score some major endorsement deals in the future.

Add to this the fact that many countries have drastically increased their investment and interest in para-(Paralympic) sport over the past decade or so. We’re talking about large countries such as China, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and more. To make things even more interesting, Russia will return as a strong competitor in 2020 (they were banned from the 2016 Paralympic Games for systematic doping violations) as well as the United States, who is expected to lift its performance as Paralympic sport takes more of a priority for the USOC. The International Paralympic Committee, which recently announced a major rebrand, is prepping for growth as well.

So, in the context of this excitement, what might this mean for athletes with physical and sensory disabilities and their desires for more increased participation in inclusive competition (e.g., scholastic and intercollegiate sport)? One barrier to the potential growth of Paralympic sport opportunities in the United States and in other countries is maintaining a sport system based on a restrictive classification system in which athletes are classified based on their type of disability and the range of physical or sensory functioning they have in a given sport compared with others.

But what does that really mean?

At the Paralympic Games and in other IPC international sanctioned competition, all Paralympic athletes must meet both an ability standard of athletic excellence in their given sport as well as meet a minimal disability classification standard in order to qualify for a given competition. Team sports such as wheelchair basketball and rugby use a point system that accommodates athletes with different types of disabilities (i.e., athletes who have a spinal injury versus an amputation) while individual sports often accommodate athletes more based on a functional classification. In Rio, para-triathlon, for instance, had three classification categories while swimming had 14 classification categories and track and field 26. This means a wider array of athletes with different disabilities competing head to head in triathlon than in track and field, for example.

The outcomes of greater inclusion at all levels are worth the costs of implementation.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES


At a national level or below, many countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia have developed a different, more inclusive approach to providing athletes with varying disabilities a more traditional approach to their athletic development. In Canada for example, it is not unusual to have players without disability regularly participating in wheelchair basketball, sled hockey or sitting volleyball with teammates with disabilities more traditionally represented in these sports (e.g., individuals with spinal injuries or amputees). Thus, these sports are not restricted to just a few individuals who have Paralympic-eligible disabilities. In this model, disability or para-sports become inclusive-adaptive sports allowing for greater sport and social inclusion to take place.

This point becomes highly relevant for American stakeholders when viewed in the context of the federal Rehab Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the January 2013 “Dear Colleague” letter that was issued by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Many Americans are not aware this act (virtually as old as 1972’s Title IX) mandates that “students with disabilities consistently have opportunities to participate in extracurricular athletics equal to those of other students.”

The “Dear Colleague” letter specifically states that schools “that receive Federal financial assistance” MUST provide postsecondary students with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in athletics including intercollegiate, club and intramural athletics. And we all know what MUST means, right?

Change is often difficult, and the NCAA (with its nearly 1,300 member institutions) will soon find itself challenged to address the need to create mechanisms to help provide equal access for student athletes with disabilities just as it has by engaging in issues of equity and diversity in intercollegiate sport based on race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and international origin.

Said another way, the very association that plays such a key role in developing Olympic athletes for the USOC is about to find it must do the same for athletes considered to have physical and sensory disabilities. Given the growth of the Paralympic Games, there assuredly will be a strong business case to do so.

Inclusion is often a hotly debated topic and often perceived as being too expensive to put into practice, but the outcomes of greater inclusion always make the NCAA, its member institutions and America a better place for athletes to receive the optimal benefits of higher education. The definition of the NCAA student athlete continues to evolve, and we think it should include student athletes with a range of disabilities.

We know athletic directors and conference commissioners may not favor this sentiment, but we also know those same individuals are threatened every day by charges their respective universities are making too much money and spending it extravagantly on a select few sports. Add to this the high impact Paralympic sport has on people with disabilities and we suggest a great opportunity, if not a vacuum, exists.

Inclusion of athletes with physical disabilities will provide a magnificent legacy for some of those millions regularly used to upgrade practice facilities and stadiums. And if the wealth of the NCAA is sprinkled on the last remaining platform of inclusion, there’s a wonderful chance the USOC will once again reap rewards on the international stage of Olympic and Paralympic sport.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and SU’s faculty athletics representative to the ACC and NCAA. Norm O’Reilly (oreillyn@ohio.edu) is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor of Business and chair of the Department of Sports Administration at Ohio University, and partner consultant with the T1 Agency.

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