Geoff Berkeley

Shortly after landing in Rotterdam, Andrew Parsons found himself faced with a situation that all travellers dread - his luggage did not arrive.

Somehow his suitcase had not made it on his flight from Manchester to the Dutch city, leaving the International Paralympic Committee President in a spot of bother.

Parsons was just hours away from appearing at the Opening Ceremony of the European Para Championships (EPC) where he was set to deliver a speech.

After finding out about Parsons’ predicament, EPC founder Eric Kersten contacted the Brazilian official to offer him his shoes.

Parsons said Kersten’s gesture "reflected the spirit" of the EPC organisers as they put on their very first event in Rotterdam.

"It’s a very solution-oriented Organising Committee," said Parsons.

"They do not only have a plan to deliver to the highest possible level but they are ready to react if anything different happens which is what you want."

I happened to be with Kersten at the time when the message came through from Parsons as the final preparations were being made for the Opening Ceremony on Monday (August 7).

The ceremony was a big moment for Kersten as he prepared to see his big dream become a reality.

Five years ago, the EPC was just an idea in Kersten's head having been inspired by the inaugural edition of the European Championships in Glasgow in 2018.

IPC President Andrew Parsons, left, wearing Eric Kersten's shoes, is a big fan of the concept for the European Para Championships ©EPC
IPC President Andrew Parsons, left, wearing Eric Kersten's shoes, is a big fan of the concept for the European Para Championships ©EPC

The Scottish city brought together the European Championships of seven sports for one combined event - a concept which Kersten was confident could be replicated in the Paralympic Movement.

Kersten then set about on his mission to get the International Federations, National Paralympic Committees, the European Paralympic Committee and Rotterdam behind his plans.

"It was a challenge to convince people about something that wasn’t there," said Kersten.

"We had no pictures, no figures, nothing."

His persistence paid off with Para archery, Para badminton, boccia, Para cycling, goalball, Para judo, shooting Para sports, Para taekwondo, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis agreeing to form part of a 10-strong sports programme.

Another key driving force behind the EPC is tournament director Jeroen Straathof, a man who is used to pulling off seemingly unlikely feats.

The Dutchman is the only athlete to participate at the Summer and Winter Olympics and the Paralympics.

After starting out as a speedskater where he represented The Netherlands at the Lillehammer 1994 Winter Olympics, Straathof switched to cycling.

Straathof piloted visually impaired Jan Mulder to Paralympic gold at Sydney 2000 before being part of the Dutch pursuit team at the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics.

He was prepared to do things differently - and that included the Opening Ceremony.

While the majority of multi-sport events follow the usual formalities, the EPC opted to ditch the traditional Parade of Nations and instead put the 10 Para sports on centre stage.

The European Para Championships have been described as a
The European Para Championships have been described as a "mini-Paralympics" by athletes as they aim to become continental champions and seal their place at Paris 2024 ©EPC

"Athletes could attend and watch the whole show," said Straathof.

"Usually when there is an Opening Ceremony of an Olympics or Paralympics, athletes have to wait until they march in and only get to see some highlights of the show.

"What we have heard is that they thought it was fun to see the whole Opening Ceremony instead of waiting behind the scenes and then seeing some fireworks.

"The Opening Ceremony, how we presented the different sports and amazing performances of the artists were really well received by the audience."

At the heart of the inaugural edition is the Rotterdam Ahoy - a venue that staged the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest and annually holds an Association of Tennis Professionals Tour 500 event.

It has proven to be the ideal home of the EPC with Para badminton, goalball, Para judo and Para taekwondo, boccia and shooting Para sport, and wheelchair basketball split across five halls that provided a real energy and allowed spectators and athletes to see more sport.

"I think we have set the standard of how to organise 10 European Championships together with a great look and feel," said Straathof.

"It’s much easier to organise one Ahoy instead of 10 different places.

"On national television, they interviewed people and they were saying that we were here for judo but we also watched boccia.

"Its important to have sports close together so it is easy to show people more on one day.

"If you have more European Championships in The Netherlands over two weeks, a person who lives in Rotterdam will not go to the north of the country to watch another European Championships.

Fans have flocked to the Rotterdam Ahoy to enjoy various Para sports ©EPC
Fans have flocked to the Rotterdam Ahoy to enjoy various Para sports ©EPC

"We also have some side events when people can try out different Para sports.

"Yesterday, the goalball team of Germany played wheelchair basketball which was really fun to watch."

It’s not the first continental multi-sport event in Para sport, with the Asian Para Games set for its fourth edition in October and the Parapan American Games poised for its seventh in November.

Ghana is also planning to host the inaugural African Para Games next month, albeit with just four sports.

But the event in Rotterdam is a first for Europe and has been welcomed by athletes as it provides them with a chance to qualify for the Paris 2024 Paralympics.

"It’s absolutely fantastic," said British Para judoka Christopher Skelley.

"It’s like a mini-Paralympics.

"To be at the Paralympics in Tokyo and to experience that was amazing.

"To come here and feel the same is incredible.

"It’s really good for people to see that even if you have a disability, it doesn’t mean you have to stop doing sports.

"Everyone competing today and in the next week will show that Paralympic sports are here to stay.

"We have to show people that whatever your disability is, there is always something out there for you.

"Disability is your superpower."

Romania's Florin Bologa became the first-ever gold medallist at the European Para Championships when he won a Para judo title ©EPC
Romania's Florin Bologa became the first-ever gold medallist at the European Para Championships when he won a Para judo title ©EPC

Romania’s Para judoka Florin Bologa made history by becoming the first-ever gold medal-winner at the EPC after winning the J1 men’s under-73 kilogram title on Tuesday (August 8).

"The atmosphere here is amazing, the competition is being organised very well and it is very important to have such a competition," said the double Paralympic medallist.

"Every Paralympic athlete and Para judo athlete deserves a competition like the able-bodied athletes do."

Walking around in Kersten’s shoes, Parsons took the opportunity to watch various Para sports during his time in Rotterdam.

Parsons is leaving still without his luggage but with a good first impression and hopes another city will follow in Rotterdam’s footsteps by staging the second edition in four years' time.

"I understood the concept immediately," said Parsons.

"The people in Rotterdam have not seen limitation and dared to dream big.

"They are strengthening the Paralympic Movement by making new connections.

"These Championships will have a positive impact on Para sport and communities across Europe.

"I’m really happy so far and, as I said at the Opening Ceremony, hopefully we’ll have editions in 2027, 2031 and so on.

"I would really like this event to be a permanent event every four years in the international calendar."

Whoever takes on the hosting rights in 2027, the EPC looks like it is here to stay after organisers dared to dream big.