The heartbeat of the Paralympic Movement that just keeps on ticking
Monday, 20 August 2012
For a moment, let us look at the entire Paralympic Movement as a human body.
The face would have to be South Africa's Oscar Pistorius (pictured below), the double-leg amputee, known as "Blade Runner", and the most recognisable Paralympic athlete on the planet. The mouth would be International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President Sir Philip Craven, the most powerful man in the Movement, responsible for voicing the direction it moves in. The blood cells would be the thousands of athletes whose inspirational stories of triumph over adversity makes the Paralympic Movement such a unique and special entity.
But its heart would be the IPC chief executive Xavier Gonzalez, the man who unassumingly keeps the whole thing ticking.
Despite having served as the chief executive for the global governing body of the Paralympic Movement for almost a decade, the 52-year-old Spaniard has always been happy to let others take the spotlight; quietly quarterbacking the operation out of the public eye, rather like an influential football midfielder who dictates the pace of the game but lets the striker take the glory.
However, it is his huge influence that has made the Paralympic Movement what it is today.
Born and educated in Barcelona, Gonzalez joined the Organising Committee of the 1992 Olympics and Paralympics in his hometown shortly after receiving an economics degree from the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Gonzalez (pictured below) spent the Barcelona Games working as the deputy director of sports and following their huge success, moved on to the Atlanta 1996 Games where he worked as vice-president of sports.
The next stop was Sydney 2000, serving as general manager for sport and Games operations in the Sydney Paralympic Organising Committee (SPOC) before becoming the managing director of Paralympics for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Games. At the same time, he served as chief operating officer at the IPC before being appointed full-time chief executive in 2004. Several Paralympic Games later, Gonzalez remains in the role and London 2012 – which the Spaniard feels could be the greatest ever – fast approaches.
"There is no doubt in my mind that London 2012 has already raised the bar for the Paralympic Games in terms of integration," Gonzalez tells me in accent that only just betrays his Catalonian roots.
"We have seen real benefits of an integrated Organising Committee for these Games because Seb Coe [the London 2012 chairman] and Paul Deighton [the London 2012 chief executive] have ensured that both teams have worked equally across both projects.
"With London, it has never been the Olympics first and then the Paralympics, it has always been both together with equal focus. The Paralympics have not taken place yet but I have every confidence in their success given all the work that has been done.
"I am not saying that other Organising Committees will not be able to match London 2012 because every Games is different. The Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 will be different, the Summer Games in Rio in 2016 will be different and the Winter Games in Pyeongchang in 2018 will again be different. They all have their own distinct plans in place for the Paralympics. But London has raised the bar for sure."
Looking ahead to life after London 2012, Gonzalez has already ensured the future of the Paralympics by negotiating the imperative agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that sees that Olympics and Paralympics staged back-to-back, in the same city and venues.
This has been in place since Seoul 1988, but the most recent agreement only ran until Rio 2016. Earlier this year, it was announced that an extension would run through to 2020.
It was signed by IOC President Jacques Rogge (pictured below, right) and IPC President Sir Philip Craven (pictured below, centre) in London last month. Both were delighted.
"The IOC and the IPC have had a long and strong relationship and it is with great pleasure that that we are able to extend this agreement with the IPC and ensure that the Olympic and Paralympic Games continue to be held in the same host cities until 2020," said Rogge.
"Our continued financial support to the Paralympics shows that the Olympic Movement is universal and also indicates the importance that the Paralympic Games have in promoting sport to the youth of the world – one of the fundamental principles of Olympism."
Sir Philip, an IOC member himself, added: "We are grateful to the IOC for their continued and growing support.
"Without them the Paralympic Games would not have grown to the superb sporting spectacle it is today and by working together over the coming years we can continue to deliver a 60 day global celebration of sport."
The agreement took longer to sign than many expected, but Gonzalez explained that there were technical points that needed to be discussed at length with the IOC.
"Extending the IOC and IPC Co-operation Agreement was obviously very important for us as it allows us to continue our growth secure in the knowledge that our Games will benefit from using the same venues, infrastructure and levels of detailed planning as the Olympic Games," he said.
"But the agreement needed to be changed slightly because the IPC and the Paralympics has changed considerably from when the last agreement was signed.
"It is different in terms of our global reach and how we can market ourselves in a more professional way.
"It was important for that to be recognised.
"In the new agreement, we have identified new IOC programmes and activities which the IPC could participate in, including IF [International Federations] development, IOC Olympic Solidarity and Transfer of Knowledge.
"We have also agreed to discuss further areas and projects of mutual interest and collaboration, including further co-operation in the commercial area.
"The agreement will also lead to an increase in funding from the IOC to the IPC.
"So we are very happy that this has now been completed and we can fully plan for the next Games in Sochi, Rio, Pyeongchang and 2020."
Safe in the knowledge that he has secured the future of the Paralympics until at least 2020, I ask Gonzalez if his work at the IPC is almost at an end.
As I expect, my question draws a laugh.
"I'm not planning on moving just yet," he says.
"But in all seriousness, this is a job that I like and a job where I still feel I can contribute to the Paralympic Movement. I will continue to contribute for as long as I can. I suppose it is more a question for the IPC than for me because they may decide one day that they do not want me anymore and that they want change.
"But hopefully that moment will not arrive soon because I have many more things that I want to achieve and with London 2012 coming up, it is a very exciting time for us."
It certainly is, and while the magic of the London 2012 Paralympics will come and go in the blink of an eye, the Paralympic Movement can be safe in the knowledge that their Spanish heartbeat will still be ticking away nicely for many more years yet.
Tom Degun is a reporter for insideworldparasport. You can follow him on Twitter here.