Sullivan in awe of star treatment for Beijing’s Paralympics

by Rod Mickleburgh
Globe and Mail
paralympic-logo.jpgThe Paralympic Games have always been a bit of an awkward afterthought to the spectacular show of the Olympics, mostly ignored by the public and the media despite the compelling stories and achievements of many competitors.
But Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, himself a quadriplegic, believes that China’s no-holds-barred staging of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, with near-full venues and comprehensive TV coverage, has rocketed the event to heights it has never come close to achieving before.

The Paralympic Games have turned a corner, declared Mr. Sullivan, an observer of the Beijing competition and four previous Paralympics, and this is certain to have a positive impact on the 2010 Games in Vancouver and Whistler.
“I’ve been banging the drum, saying we’ve got to do better for the Paralympics here, and the echo I’ve been getting back hasn’t been very good,” he said yesterday. “People want to do good, and they’ve made good statements about what they’d like to do. But I feel that if it wasn’t for China setting this high standard, it would be a lot harder.”
Every time he turned on the TV in Beijing, the Paralympics were being shown, Mr. Sullivan said. “There was a complete embracing of the event. … They made disabled people human beings. That’s really what they’ve done. And not only human beings. They made them heroes.”
The mayor noted the indifference of much of the rest of the world to the Paralympics – and China’s enthusiasm – during a visit to the Main Press Centre, which had buzzed non-stop with thousands of journalists while the Olympics took place last month.
Now, Mr. Sullivan said, “it was like a ghost town. Dark. No movement whatsoever.
“That is, until I got three-quarters of the way into the Chinese section. There, there were people rushing around, equipment coming in and out, people chattering to each other, monitoring screens and tapping on keyboards.
“And I was thinking: Here are the progressive, enlightened Western democracies completely abandoning the Paralympics … and then there’s China.”
While not every seat at every event has been filled, observers have been surprised at how many spectators have bought tickets for the Paralympics. The International Paralympic Committee estimates overall attendance at more than 70 per cent, with more than a few events sold out.
“I thought there’d be very few people at this event,” a Beijing businesswoman taking in a judo competition at the crowded, 13,000-seat Workers’ Indoor Stadium told Reuters. “The atmosphere is unexpectedly enthusiastic.”
A mother took her son and two school friends to table tennis, hoping the disabled athletes would inspire them. “I want the kids to learn from their strong will, hard work, persistence and sportsmanship,” she explained to a reporter.
Mr. Sullivan said winning the Olympics, and with it the Paralympics, has changed attitudes toward the disabled in China, long known for shunning those with mental or physical handicaps and keeping them out of sight.
“When I last went to China six years ago, I was carried everywhere,” he said. “Now I go to the Forbidden City and there are wheelchair ramps. There are wheelchair taxis. It’s so much better.”
VANOC chief John Furlong has also been wowed by the 11-day Paralympics in Beijing.
“With the support of Chinese national television and hundreds of thousands of cheering fans, the 2008 Paralympic Games have left an indelible mark on the city and the entire country,” Mr. Furlong said in a statement. He congratulated Beijing organizers for “brilliantly hosting and showcasing” the abilities of Paralympic athletes to the world.
Moved in particular by the haunting, inspiring image of a one-legged athlete in a wheelchair hauling himself up a rope to light the Paralympic flame, Mr. Furlong has called on broadcasters to show far more of the Paralympics on TV.
“It has to be seen because the message is so powerful and inspiring,” he told reporters after the Games’ opening ceremony.
Mr. Sullivan, meanwhile, said he did not think China’s unprecedented embrace of the Paralympics was simply a result of being the host country and being required to take the event seriously.
“The events were all broadcast in Chinese. This wasn’t a propaganda thing. It was clearly meant for a local, domestic audience,” he said. “Beijing has showed us how it can be done, and the benefits from this will reverberate through their country for years to come.”