London...the permanent home of the Para Athletics World Championships?
On Monday night 10 time World Champion Brent Lakatos showed his support for an issue in the most forceful way you can nowadays, he pinned a Tweet to his Twitter feed. The Tweet, which has been shared 390 times read “The UK is the birthplace of the Paralympics. The London 2017 Worlds are the best ever. Let’s make London the permanent home of the Para World Championships”
It’s not clear from where this issue originated, simply from Lakatos alone or from a band of athletes, but momentum behind the idea has grown, gaining support from influential athletes such as Hannah Cockroft, who swept the board in terms of medals at these championships, and Paralympic Champion Kadeena Cox, with the Evening Standard and The Daily Mail also running reports.
The issue Lakatos has brought to light is representative of where the Paralympic Movement finds itself post 2012. Such was the success of that event that everything else has paled by comparison.
Lakatos went on to clarify his initial plea, stating the reasons why he feels the event should always be based in London “It’s everything. The organization, the volunteers, the hotel proximity, etc. But the GB fans are the best, and we love competing for them”. All totally understandable from an athletes’ perspective, especially given the somewhat patchy history of the event.
In its 24 history only twice has the event left Europe, the first time was in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2011 and the second was in Doha, Qatar in 2015. Neither were without problems. In 2011 huge numbers of athletes withdrew from the marathon event on the final day, after finding out that the roads wouldn’t be closed. It seems they didn’t want to take their chances with the rush-hour traffic.
Sohie Hahn (GB) competing in Doha 2015
The issue in Doha, was perhaps one of expectation. Hopes were high, with the event being hosted on the Asian continent for the first time, and the swell of interest from London 2012 still pushing an expectation of consistent growth. However, sluggish ticket sales and a much reduced coverage from those broadcasters who’d so vigorously promoted the Paralympic Games two years previously, led to an overriding sense of disappointment.
Returning to London, as a standalone event has been a refreshing tonic. Para Athletics has of course returned to the London Stadium since the Paralympic Games, but as with the Paralympics it was linked to mainstream sport such as the in the Anniversary Games, not out on its own two feet/blades/wheels. This time Parasport has returned to its spiritual home, in its own right and it feels good.
Unpacking Lakatos’ argument, there are two key elements. Number one; Organisation. London 2012 set the bar, not only for competitive action, coverage and facilities, but also for the professional organisation of a Paralympic Games which hadn’t, and hasn’t been matched since. Whichever way you cut it, the IPC having to step in for the Rio 2016 Organising Committee to cover unpaid travel grants to National Paralympic Committees to the tune of $3.7m probably doesn’t qualify as good organisation. Lakatos is absolutely entitled to demand that the standards set by London should now be considered the industry minimum.
The second element of the argument is where things are a little less clear cut. London 2012 had a transformative affect on the Paralympic Movement, but so too did it on the British public. Although statistics show that perceptions of people with a disability changed very little in day to day life, the perception of Para Athletes changed beyond recognition.
This was of course, not always the case. The World Para Athletics Championships have been held in the UK before, in Birmingham in 1998. Speaking to Channel 4, Sophia Warner recalled her experiences pre-London 2012 “There’s going to be 18,000 spectators here tonight, some of the athletes are disappointed because it’s not a sell-out but I remember running in front of 150 people, most of which were my family”. The point being that fans in the UK weren’t always the die hard Parasports fans we see today. In 2012 they had their Paralympic epiphany and now they can’t get enough.
Therefore, by restricting one of the Paralympic Movement’s flagship events to one city, it will surely deny millions of others worldwide from having the chance to experience Parasport up close and personal. It will deny them the chance to volunteer, to meet the athletes, to host athletes, to support athletes in the same way that has been afforded to the good folk of London town.
The International Paralympic Committee’s response has been to cover both bases. Outgoing IPC President sounded emphatic when stating in conversation with the Evening Standard “Let’s clear this up, it won’t ever happen that London is the permanent home.” before saying “But I think that London is a possibility [as 2019 host] dependent on a bid being put to us. No decision has been made yet and you can see what a great time everyone has had here. We’d obviously love to come back.”
Although a comparison to the mainstream is loathed in the World of Parasport, the IAAF purposely set out to move the World Championships to a new continent every two years. Considering the Rio Paralympics clocked up the highest number of viewers from individual countries, it would seem that now more than ever is the time to make sure that the big Parasport events engage global audiences.
From London’s perspective they would welcome the event with open arms. London 2017 Chief Ed Warner nearly tripped over himself trying to get onto the bandwagon. Again speaking to the Standard, Warner said “I’d really like to see the championships back here in 2019, this is the world’s best athletics stadium and the crowds and athletes have embraced that.”
Cities like Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles (the hosts of the next three Paralympic Games) or Berlin (the host of the first ever World Para Athletics Championships in 1994) will certainly have one or two words to say about Warner’s claim to the best facilities in the world, and time will tell whether upcoming Paralympics will cause the same spike in interest as London 2012.
For the moment, there is no easy answer to this one, the athletes understandably want to compete in the best facilities, with the best crowds. The International Paralympic Committee want to spread Parasport throughout the world, but also know they need to maintain the needs of the sports and the athletes. For a Movement refusing to take a backwards step, the solution is probably somewhere in the middle. Tell us what you think below...