2010 Paralympics about changing minds, not capturing hearts
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, March 12, 2010 4:28PM EST
VANCOUVER - The 2010 Paralympic Winter Games isn't about capturing the hearts of Canadians. It's about changing their minds.
While the Paralympics are for athletes with physical disabilities, the hope within the movement is that the first Games to be held in Canada becomes more about ability.
"In China, the (Paralympic) Games were really a transformation tool for changing attitudes across the board in China towards people with disability, to building accessibility facilities in the city, to changing laws to allow people with a disability to be part of society," said Xavier Gonzalez, the chief executive officer for the International Paralympic Committee.
"Here it is a different goal and consequently. . . here it is more about presenting sport as sport and to showcase these are athletes and nothing else."
Ticket sales so far may support that idea: all of Team Canada's sledge hockey games have sold out.
After all, said Keith Baulk, the venue manager for the sledge hockey events, to Canadians "hockey is hockey."
The same issue that plagued Olympic organizers in the days before the Games has also posed a problem for the Paralympics -- weather. Fog in Whistler has raised some questions about whether downhill skiers will be able to get all their training runs in on time.
But otherwise, Gonzalez said the lead-up to the Paralympics has been blissfully problem free.
While past Paralympics have been run by organizing committees distinct from those which organize the Olympics, that system changed beginning with the Beijing Games.
Now a city bids to host both, and the benefits of doing so aren't just practical, said Gonzalez.
"It's two Games, one single festival. Each one of the Games have their own personality," he said.
"Together they make Vancouver 2010 a fantastic experience."
For Vancouver, the mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics were introduced together and travelled together. The posters for the two events are each half a maple leaf that only becomes whole when they're put together.
But organizers did promote the events differently, taking a much more community-focused approach to the Paralympic Games.
While the Olympic torch relay was a 106-day, cross-country odyssey, the Paralympic relay was a 10-day event that jumped from city to city, culminating in a 24-hour relay in downtown Vancouver.
Torchbearer Craig McCord, a swim coach for both Olympic and Paralympic athletes, said he thought the impact was the same.
"I think it does the same thing, it started out in Ottawa and it's been to Quebec City and Toronto, Victoria, Whistler -- I think it builds on the momentum (of the Olympics)," he said.
The committee also ran an extensive education program around the Paralympics, bringing athletes to dozens of schools.
"They make the word impossible look like it's just a distraction, frankly," said John Furlong, chief executive officer of the Vancouver organizing committee, known as VANOC.
"Kids are in disbelief when they look at what these men and women are able to do so it has a lot of power on its own," he added.
"It has a huge impact on children. This is why there is very specifically school programs that take place around the Paralympics that don't exist as much around the Olympics."
In their overall, $1.75 billion operating budget, VANOC includes the cost of running the Paralympics.
The difference however is that while the budget for the Olympics comes from sponsorship revenue, the Paralympics are funded largely by the government, though corporate funding is increasing.
Television coverage is expanding as well and the CTV-Rogers consortium with the rights to the Games in Canada was forced into broadcasting the opening ceremonies live in B.C. after strong demand.
The physical impact of the Paralympics on Vancouver and Whistler, B.C. is much smaller than the Olympics. There are only around 1,000 athletes and officials involved in four sports events.
Sledge hockey and wheelchair curling take place in Vancouver, while the alpine and Nordic sports are in Whistler.
In the bid for the Games, the entire Paralympics were to be held in Whistler but building sledge hockey and curling facilities for them was eventually deemed too costly.
Changing the venues over for the Paralympics hasn't required too much work. Adjustments have been made to seating areas and some accessibility features were added, like lower clothing rods in changing rooms.
Despite the fact that the newly-built venues were constructed with the Paralympics in mind, there have been some minor mistakes, like the fact that the balconies at the Vancouver athletes' village can't be accessed by wheelchairs.
Overall, the athletes are happy.
"The Games haven't started but everything is so perfect right now," said Jean Labonte, a sledge hockey player who will carry the flag for Canada into the opening ceremonies.
"The village is great, the venues are amazing, the volunteers, they make us feel extremely welcome everywhere we go."
Both Vancouver and Whistler are also hoping to recapture the same spirit that was present during the Olympics, beginning with Friday's opening ceremonies.
"We want to pick up where the Olympics left off and catch that Canadian pride once again," said Patrick Roberge, the producer of the opening and closing ceremonies.
"I believe that Canada is a country that is more prepared to welcome the Paralympians than any other country of the world."
Some of the pavilions that were open during the Olympics will reopen in Vancouver, while others have relocated to Whistler.
Canada's Paralympians also benefit from the $117 Own the Podium initiative that saw Canada's Olympic team finish with the most gold medals ever won at a Winter Games.
Over the last quadrennial, the winter sports have received around $10.1 million for their national team programs. They also have benefited from the Top Secret Program, which helps design new technology, and cash that has gone to Canadian Sport Centres.
With files from Canadian Press reporters James Keller and Jim Morris