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Talking point: Combing Olympic and Paralympic Games?

It’s a question that’s often discussed, but what are the pros and cons? Would a combined Games really benefit Paralympic athletes? Is it feasible to organise such a huge event? Tom Walker asks the experts for their views

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 3
In the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, many have questioned whether the Olympics and Paralympics should be combined / © shutterstock/StreetVJ
In the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, many have questioned whether the Olympics and Paralympics should be combined/ © shutterstock/StreetVJ

The prospect of combining the Paralympic and Olympic Games – and holding them as a single event – is a topic which is regularly mooted by those in the media and people working in the sports sector.

Those in favour suggest that if the Games were merged and held simultaneously, Paralympians would receive equal coverage with Olympians.

The argument is that, by giving all events the recognition they deserve as sports – and all competitors the recognition they deserve as athletes – there would be better recognition of the feats of Paralympic athletes, leading to better funding, resources and opportunities for often overlooked sports.

Some claim that, with a combined medal table, countries who want to finish high in the Olympic medals – but traditionally focus less on Paralympics – would have to invest considerably in their Paralympic athletes in order to maintain their top rankings.

Another point in favour is that fans watching a combined Games would be able to see how much sports have been adapted for the Paralympics. By seeing how different the sports are, the Paralympic ‘versions’ would be seen as disciplines in their own right.

Those against question whether it could be done at all from a logistics point of view. A combined Games would mean more athletes, more events and more support staff. This would result in the need for bigger athletes’ villages, more transport infrastructure and more volunteers, making the event unmanageable.

There are also accessibility considerations when it comes to athletes with disabilities competing alongside able-bodied ones within the same venues.

There are those who say that instead of increasing the coverage and profile of the Paralympics, combining the Games would reduce the focus on the Paralympics, as the events would get lost in the noise.

So what are the pros and the cons of a merger? Would it be beneficial? We asked the experts for their views.

Mik Scarlet
Broadcaster, journalist and advocate of access and inclusion for disabled people
Scarlet believes in creating a new, inclusive event

I totally support the combining of the Olympic and Paralympic events. It would be the single biggest global act of inclusion ever. It would say to the world that disabled and non-disabled athletes, and thus people, are entirely equal.

The process would also answer other big questions faced by the Olympic movement at the moment, such as the issue of trans athletes. If the grading method of assessing athletes used by the Paralympic Games were adopted across the Olympic event it would create a truly inclusive Games.

"Combining the Olympic and Paralympic Games would be the single biggest global act of inclusion ever. It would say to the world that disabled and non-disabled athletes are entirely equal"

Men and women could compete equally together, as they would be assessed on ability and body size, not just gender. It would make the Olympic movement fit for the 21st century and so much more exciting.

Many current Paralympians are concerned about the combining of the two events but that’s if they remain as they currently are but just held together. I see the combining more as picking the best of both and creating something new, inclusive, exciting and future-proof: a Games that shows we’re all equal yet highlights the outstanding talent and hard work of all the athletes, both fairly and in a manner that excites even more of the global audience.

Some commentators are concerned that combining the Games would reduce focus on Paralympic events © shutterstock/CP DC Press
Professor Nora Groce
Director, Disability Research Centre at University College London
Professor Nora Groce

The long-standing debate around whether the Olympics and Paralympics should be run together or continue as separate events will only get more heated in the lead up to the Tokyo games.

People who call for combining the games raise important points. Paralympians are much less likely to get the same status, media exposure or sponsorship opportunities as their non-disabled peers. And while Olympic Games consistently get major global attention no matter where they are held, the Paralympics are still dependent on the host nation’s willingness to devote equal attention and resources to both events.

In 2012, London’s Paralympics used the opportunity to offer a global ‘teachable moment’ on disability. My particular favourite was Channel 4’s outstanding reframing of the two week hiatus between the Olympics and Paralympics in their ‘Thanks for the Warm Up’ campaign.

"Combining the two events is not impossible if there is enough commitment and resources"

But in other host countries, the Paralympics have garnered much less attention and support.

Combining the two events into one larger event raises other concerns – including having Paralympic accomplishments overshadowed by major Olympic events. However, combining the events is not impossible if there’s enough commitment and resources.

But in all this discussion, I think we sometimes forget to ask a larger question. The objective of the International Olympics is to ‘build a better world through sport.’ The objective of the International Paralympics is to make ‘an inclusive world through sport.’

To my mind, a better world must also be an inclusive world. Perhaps this is where this discussion should start.

Paralympians rarely get the same media exposure as Olympians © shutterstock/A.RICARDO
Joint response from the British Olympic Association and British Paralympic Association:

The Olympic and Paralympic Games are two separate elite sport competitions run by two separate organisations: the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee respectively. Hosting the two events together would be logistically very hard to manage due to the sheer scale of the venue overlay, the numbers of athletes competing and number of events included.

Neither the Olympic nor the Paralympic movement would wish to advocate cutting events and sports from the programme while the Paralympic movement continues to grow and enjoys being both independent and having its own unique identity.

The Olympic and Paralympic movements enjoy an excellent relationship, whereby we share resources, experience and intelligence, including the Olympic Games and National Olympic Committees, leaving facilities and resources in legacy for Paralympic colleagues.

"Hosting the two events together would be logistically very hard to manage"

For these reasons we believe it remains far easier for the two events to be held separately but in the same host city.

However, there are some wonderful examples of international events where the two disciplines are integrated and showcased to the public side-by-side. We applaud and encourage this where it is feasible.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson
Paralympic legend and chair of ukactive
Tanni Grey-Thompson says separate Games work best

It would be extremely difficult to combine the Olympic and Paralympic Games into one event. One issue would be the number of competitors and staff involved. The Olympics has more than 10,000 athletes taking part and the Paralympics has 6,000.

In addition to that, many of the volunteers that both Games rely on so heavily want to work on both events and it’s essential that they have time for a break in between, particularly because they work pretty long hours.

"The reality is that events and disciplines would have to be cut, which would damage the positive growth we’ve seen over the years"

The size and scale of the village required to house the athletes for both events would be huge and the cost of building this would be prohibitive for many cities. The reality is that events and disciplines would have to be cut, which would damage the positive growth we’ve seen over the years.

I think it works well having separate Games, but where there could be closer collaboration would be on events such as the World Championships and European Championships. The Commonwealth Games also does this well, but as separate events it would be incredibly difficult to organise.

Tanni Grey-Thompson won a total of 16 Paralympic medals © Gareth Copley/PA Archive/PA Images
Nik Diaper
Head of Para Sport, Loughborough University
Nik Diaper has competed at six Paralympic Games

I’m one of those people who is against the move to combine the two, as I’m not sure it would be the best thing for Paralympic sport to be integrated with the Olympics. I’ve been to six Paralympic Games and I think the event’s appeal lies in the amazing and unique experiences it creates.

For me, there are two arguments to consider regarding running the events at the same time – a philosophical one and a practical one.

From a philosophical point of view, the Paralympics Games is such an amazing, special thing. If it were to be combined with an event equally amazing in its own right – the Olympic Games – I fear that it would somewhat dilute the value of both events.

The Paralympic Games gives para-athletes a unique voice. I’m not sure we would have the likes of Jonnie Peacock or Ellie Simmonds have the profiles they currently do, if they were competing in the same space as the Usain Bolts and Michael Phelps’ of this world. Also, I think there is actually more chance of people being inspired by the Paralympic Games when it’s a standalone event.

"The Paralympic Games’ appeal lies in the amazing and unique experience it creates"

On a practical level, there are logistical issues to consider. There are around 10,000 athletes that compete during the Olympic Games and another 5,000 who compete in the Paralympics. And that’s just the athletes.

Add to those the additional 10,000 to 15,000 support staff and you will have to concede that, realistically, the only way to run the two alongside each other would be to limit the number of athletes and/or the number of events.

So while I recognise that, in this day and age, the two events could be combined, for me they’re very different things. They mean different things to different people and combining the two would dilute what each represents.

Diaper believes there is more chance of people being inspired by the Paralympic Games when it is a standalone event © shutterstock/Shahjehan
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