Sochi Paralympics failing to meet London Games' standard

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Leading up to the London Olympics, organizers ran a spectacular promotional campaign for the Paralympics that would follow the Games.

Nick Springer, a member of the 2012 U.S Paralympic rugby squad, said that London’s efforts were wonderful in bringing attention to Paralympic events. “Instead of putting emphasis on the disability, they put emphasis on the athletes,” he said. “The feel of the games was that they were more about the sports and the competition as opposed to overcoming adversity.”

TV commercials, billboard advertising and pre-event coverage consistently bolstered interest in the London Paralympics.

“They promoted individual Paralympians in London the same way they did Michael Phelps in the U.S,” Springer recalled. “I would get recognized on the street.”

British broadcasters televised the Paralympics in their entirety, and comedian Adam Hills hosted a nightly rundown of each day’s events, which became a mainstream hit. The games were touted as every bit as exciting to watch as the able-bodied precursor and were received accordingly by the public. Many of the events sold out well in advance.

In Sochi, by contrast, there’s little sign the Paralympics are even coming to the city. The competition will run from March 7 to 16, with more than 600 athletes from 44 countries, but the only visible promotion around town seems to be the occasional sign with the words “Paralympic Games” printed on a blue background along the newly constructed highways. On TV, the countless Olympic-themed talk shows and news reports rarely mention the upcoming Paralympics, let alone raise awareness about specific events or athletes.

The three Russian state TV channels that broadcast the Olympics promised to give the Paralympics ample airtime and advertise them. They have featured some segments about the Russian national team -- the country’s largest Paralympic squad ever -- and other competitors in an effort to promote viewership and ticket sales.

However, with the Paralympics just two weeks away, TV ads for games coverage are scarce, and the channels’ websites provide little or no information about their planned telecasts.

One of the networks, Rossia 2, has started to occasionally air a single commercial for its Paralympic coverage -- a 30-second video montage of athletes crossing a finish line, embracing, high-fiving and crying tears of joy. “Live broadcasts of real achievement,” a voice announces at the end.

The ad praises the competitors for trying, for finishing, for doing their best and being so brave but includes almost no footage of actual athletic feats.

This is a portrayal of disability that resonates with many Russians. Their country has a long history of hiding, rather than celebrating, the physically impaired. Russians often seem to experience a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when presented with the image of an amputee who is also a strong athlete fighting for gold -- or even being a productive, self-sufficient member of society.

The half-hearted efforts of the Russian Olympic Committee to create an effective promotional campaign and the lack of attention from Russian media outlets reflect the country’s attitude toward the disabled. Why invest money in advertising something that people aren’t going to watch? Why bother covering something in which Russians aren’t interested?

Springer, who visited the Russia in 1996, is not surprised. “It really was terrible,” he said. “Not just the wheelchair access, but the people -- the way they looked at me, the way that I was treated, the way that I was viewed.”

Oh, I can’t watch the Paralympics. I start to feel too much pity for those poor souls. That is a common sentiment in Russia. And those who aren’t saddened by the sight of physical impairments tend not to take disabled sports seriously. In Russia, a flippant, dismissive tone when speaking about Paralympic competition -- and people with disabilities in general -- is a cultural norm.

During the Olympic opening ceremony, Russian TV commentators poked fun at injured U.S skier Heidi Kloster, who used crutches during the parade of nations. “And here comes a future contestant of the Paralympics,” one said.

After Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko abruptly withdrew from the short program due to injury, his coach, Alexei Mishin, joked to reporters that maybe one day figure skating will become a Paralympic event in which Plushenko (who has metal screws in his spine from recent back surgery) might compete. The implication of the remark was that such a challenging sport being attempted by those with a physical disability is comically absurd.

It would be overly simplistic to characterize the Russian attitude toward the disabled as purely mean-spirited. The viewpoint is the result of the role disabled individuals have historically been prescribed in Russian culture; they have been labeled as weak, pitiful, dependent on others and unable to contribute to society.

Not coincidentally, the barriers to the disabled becoming part of regular society have been substantial. For decades, Russia’s government failed to incorporate even basic access for the disabled into the country’s buildings and other infrastructure.

When Moscow hosted the 1980 Olympics, organizers refused to include the Paralympics. The city was not equipped for wheelchairs, and organizers didn’t see much value in making it so. After all, during Soviet times, the accepted belief was that “invalids” shouldn’t be out in public in the first place.

The absence of wheelchair access in homes, businesses, stores and public transportation made otherwise capable individuals unable to work, commute or even leave the house. It forced them to rely on others in almost every aspect of their daily lives. Disabled Russians were never given opportunities to contribute and achieve or the tools needed for an autonomous existence.

Today, despite some accessibility improvements made mostly in major cities, the paradigm of disability in Russia hasn’t changed all that much. In 2012, Tanya Lokshina, a senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, published a report in which she wrote:  “People with disabilities in Russia face a range of barriers that limit their participation in society. Public buildings and transportation are often inaccessible.… People with disabilities are largely cut off from society and have very limited choices.”

Paradoxically, Russian officials, despite neglecting to promote the Sochi Paralympics, appear determined to show the world how far Russia has come. Following more than five years of construction, much of Sochi is, indeed, wheelchair accessible.

Russia has launched a Decade of Disabled People initiative. The stated mission is to change the attitude of Russian society toward disabled people in preparation for the Paralympics and to create a barrier-free environment throughout Russia.

But since that initiative was announced in a press release in December 2011, it has not been mentioned in the Russian press.

Meanwhile, with only days to go before the Paralympic opening ceremony, glitches are still being reported in the so-called barrier-free access system in Sochi and even the Olympic Park. International Paralympic Committee president Sir Philip Craven has in recent months expressed concern over poor ticket sales to Paralympic events

However the Paralympics unfold next month, there is no debating that Sochi Games organizers have failed to do what their counterparts in London did in 2012: treat the Olympics and Paralympics as of equal importance to the host city.