Sullivan’s message of inclusion resonates

By Randy Shore, Vancouver Sun

Sam Sullivan delivered one of the city’s proudest moments when he accepted the Olympic flag on behalf of Vancouver and the 2010 Games in Turin, performing a series of assiduously practised loops in his wheelchair to ensure the flag would unfurl.

The former mayor battled the cold that day in 2006 and was on the verge of going into a debilitating muscle spasm.

But it wasn’t Sullivan’s electric pirouettes and athleticism that made an impression; it was his message of inclusion.

Sullivan, of course, stood on the shoulders of giants such as Rick Hansen and Terry Fox. But Fox and Hansen were terrific, charismatic athletes with well-marketed causes. They made themselves heroes with ability and determination and became Canadian icons, each with a highly polished public image.

Sullivan made himself a leader with ability and determination, too, but he also convinced a city to endorse his leadership and elect him to the city’s highest office without the slightest whiff of Superman about him.

Sullivan’s message was entirely different and it resonated.

“The fact that I was able to become mayor impressed people all over the world,” Sullivan said. “There are two issues around disability, access and inclusion. Sure you can get up the ramp, but are you a full and equal citizen when you actually get into the building?”

Sullivan was the first mayor ever to accept both the Olympic flag and the Paralympic flag for a host city. He was the first host city mayor ever to bother showing up for the Paralympic closing ceremonies.
“That was very emotional for me,” said Sullivan. “The people with disabilities who were there, it was a big moment for them.”

As a result of the media coverage of the Olympic flag handover — there is little coverage given to the Paralympic ceremony — Sullivan was deluged with letters from all over the world, many of them from disabled people “blown away” that he had been elected mayor of a major city.

Sullivan heard from a Croatian woman here in Vancouver who said his performance inspired her town to install wheelchair ramps on their sidewalks, the town’s first accessibility program.

A mayors’ group in Italy told Sullivan that the Paralympic Games had roused public sentiment and provided an opening to create change in their cities and become more inclusive.

“They were all excited and had big plans to take on some long-standing challenges, but they had never had the momentum to get it done.”

The Paralympics can provide that kind of momentum, he said.

When the world’s Paralympians arrive in Vancouver they will be in for a better-than-world-class experience. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says our city is more than ready to host the Paralympic Games.

“The Paralympic Games tend to be overshadowed by the Olympics, but it’s important not to forget that the Paralympics get a lot of media attention around the world as well,” Robertson said in an e-mail interview. “There’s a real opportunity for Vancouver to unite around the Paralympics, to share in the experience and be proud that we’re hosting such a great event. You certainly don’t see any of the anti-Olympics cynicism towards the Paralympics; it’s all positive.”

“People will be very impressed with the accessibility of Vancouver,” Sullivan said. The city is at least five decades deep into a revolution in awareness of people’s needs and a consensus that everyone has a right to go places, do things and participate fully in life.

“We really are one of the most accessible cities in the world. I have recently been to American cities where you couldn’t get a wheelchair-accessible cab,” said Sullivan, who toured Turin while he was there for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. He also spent several weeks in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Paralympics.

Both Turin and Beijing made large investments in accessibility before hosting the Paralympics. Beijing purchased a fleet of 2,000 wheelchair-accessible buses, added wheelchair access to 123 subway stations, bought dozens of wheelchair-friendly taxis and installed 12,000 square metres of wheelchair ramps to prepare for the Games. Permanent wheelchair access was built at the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. While many of the wheelchair ramps were temporary, nonetheless, Sullivan was very impressed.

“I had been there five years earlier and it was a bad situation,” he said. “Few people with di
sabilities even went out of their homes let along held jobs or public office. I was blown away by the progress they had made.”

Turin, with its cobbled streets and ancient buildings and shops, found wheelchair accessibility almost impossible to provide.

But the fact that we are world leaders in accessibility doesn’t mean we don’t have an important mission, Sullivan said. The Olympic and Paralympic Games have a transformative power that can reach around the corner and around the world.

“In Beijing, the Paralympics revolutionized everything in China,” he said. “I was so impressed by the amount of effort that the entire country put into the Paralympics. I had never seen anything like it.”
The Western tourists and media fled the country after the closing of the 2008 Olympics and the Chinese flooded in, filling venues with loud support.

“I went to the media centre during the Olympics and it was full, one side for the Chinese media and the other side for the western media,” Sullivan recalled.

“During the Paralympics, the Chinese side was still full with hundreds of reporters and the Western side was all but empty and the lights were out. You couldn’t even detect movement.”

“I found one CBC technician and he was just watching the equipment,” Sullivan said. “The entire western world left and the entire Chinese media machine was on overdrive.”

China was primed to embrace the Paralympics after a disabled torchbearer was swarmed and assaulted by anti-Olympic and/or pro-Tibet protesters in France during the 2008 torch relay.

Wheelchair fencer Jin Jing defended the torch with determination and was anointed the “smiling angel in a wheelchair” by the Chinese media, a rare event in a country where disabled people are seldom seen outside their homes.

Chinese television was all Paralympics all the time, Sullivan said. “It really helped to make Chinese people aware of the lives of disabled people and athletes and how difficult they were.”

Whether Vancouver and the western media can live up to China’s example remains to be seen.

“It was embarrassing how the Western world treated the Beijing Paralympics,” he said. “I hope that once the Vancouver Paralympics are under way that people will really begin to appreciate the athletes and their stories and personalities.”

In additional to the transformative social legacy of the Paralympic Games, B.C. will enjoy a physical legacy when the Games wrap up.

Sullivan and Coun. Tim Louis got the ball rolling before leaving politics, putting Vancouver’s support behind a Rick Hansen initiative called Measuring Up, a guide for communities to assess their accessibility and inclusivity and identify areas to improve.

“Measuring Up has been taken up by Legacies Now and it has made a really big difference across B.C.,” Sullivan said.

Robertson is optimistic that the Games will have a lasting impact on the city beyond the physical.

“I’ve spoken to past host city mayors and one common theme is how positive the reception to the Paralympics has been,” Robertson said. “These are amazing athletes with compelling stories, and for most of them this is their only chance on the world stage. They’re not multi-million-dollar sports stars, they’re regular people pulling off amazing athletic achievements, and it’s a guarantee to be inspired by them.”

“Our city experiencing the stunning accomplishments of Paralympians during the Games will be a tremendous social legacy of the Paralympic Games,” he said.


A three-part series looking at the Paralympics, which open on Mar. 12 and will include 1,350 athletes from 40 countries.

Today: The social and physical legacy of the Paralympics and it’s impact on Vancouver and Whistler.
Monday: How technology gives Paralympians a physical and psychological edge.

Tuesday: The 2010 Winter Paralympic Games will be a major coming-out party for Canada’s disabled athletes.


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