The Tokyo Paralympics later this year will be the greatest yet. Venues packed with enthusiastic spectators, slick organisation, phenomenal sport. Everything London 2012 delivered, but with higher quality sporting contests.
Where the Olympics have moved into their dotage and are frantically trying to reverse the aging process by introducing new sports, the Paralympics are barely out of their teenage years and are benefiting from a broadening of the talent pool of athletes worldwide. With this comes fiercer competition and bounding advances in athletic performance - the perfect ingredients for a stellar Games.
If you doubt the advances in performances, just have a look at the statistics. In athletics, taking just one event as an example, Tanni Grey-Thompson won the T53 100 metres in Athens 2004 in a time almost a full second slower than Fang Gao’s winning mark at the recent World Championships in Dubai only 15 years on. Grey-Thompson at her best wouldn’t be close to the medals today. The same is true in most Para events, in athletics and across all sports, as elite disability sport enjoys its continuing growth spurt.
This growth is not without its challenges, however. The Paras are a sensation, but the sugar rush disability sport receives every four years is typically followed by a crash in public awareness that is frustrating for the Games’ stars and, in turn, creates commercial challenges for those organisations charged with building sports and developing athletes. Every cycle is marked by athletes bemoaning financial difficulties and a lack of competitive opportunities. Often the two go hand in hand.
In my years as chair of UK Athletics, I was struck by the mantra of our Paralympic head coach, Peter Eriksson, who transformed our elite disability programme. He lobbied relentless for our Para athletes to have "the same, the same, the same" as their able-bodied counterparts. The same quality of coaching, medical, sport science and other support. Medal success followed and continues today under his excellent successor Paula Dunn.
These medals do not translate easily into commercial opportunities for Britain’s Para athletes, however. They have not been helped by the baffling decision by UK Athletics not to host any major Para events in the two years since the World Para Athletics Championships in 2017. No grand prix in either 2018 or 2019 and nothing apparently on the UK calendar for this year either. Nothing, then, for sponsors to latch onto.
Am I frustrated that we sold 305,000 tickets for the 2017 Championships and no opportunity has been created for those spectators to watch top class para athletics in Britain since? You bet I am.
Although "the same, the same, the same" works for sporting performance, perhaps new models need to be explored for the overall delivery of Para sports to ensure they are given the organisational and commercial oxygen they require and deserve.
It is surely optimal for a Para sport to be bound tightly to the overall governing body, but only if there is a guarantee that must be underpinned by the structure of that body to ensure disability gets the necessary care and attention.
The International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) membership in October endorsed its President’s bold ambition to separate out those Para sports that the IPC owns and create independent existences for them by 2028 - and two years later for winter Para sports.
For athletics and swimming, by far the largest of the sports affected, this will prompt a very real debate about the pros and cons of integration into their able-bodied counterparts. Would they be strongest within World Athletics and FINA respectively - assuming Seb Coe and Julio Maglione would like to assume responsibility for them - or would standalone existences be better?
Financial considerations - for all concerned - will play a major part in the exploration process over the coming years. It is to be hoped that the interests of the athletes, financial and otherwise, will be paramount.
Last month I was appointed to the Board of GB Wheelchair Rugby (GBWR). This is an organisation that could be forgiven for thinking that the financial challenges cited above are champagne problems. Axed from lottery funding by UK Sport after Rio 2016, even after a fifth-place finish from the GB team, GBWR has scrambled to sustain its elite programme.
The greatest impact was felt by the squad members themselves who lost their UK Sport athlete performance awards. In spite of this, the team has pushed up the world rankings and now sits fourth a mere eight months out from Tokyo 2020. Wherever the team finishes - and make no mistake, the target is a medal - theirs is one of the defining stories of Olympic and Paralympic sport in Britain. It goes right to the heart of the question of why lottery funding for elite sport exists.
Wheelchair rugby in its Paralympic form is a sport for people with tetraplegia, that is with some degree of impairment in all four of their limbs as well as their torso. Britain’s team are not looking for sympathy though. Far from it, as "Murderball" is not designed for the faint-hearted. But I can say that life outside of the lottery system is harder for them than for most because of the physical challenges they face.
Thankfully, a clutch of businesses have rallied round to help GBWR in its time of need, Sport England has continued to provide lottery investment for the grassroots of the sport, and the rugby family has been hugely helpful. The latter, in particular, has been one key ingredient in the rapid development of the grassroots network so that over 2,000 people of all ages now experience the sport each year in the UK in all its forms and the number of clubs has grown from seven to 28 over the past few years.
The future for the sport is bright, but fairer distribution of lottery funds could make it so much brighter.
The disparity between UK Sport funding for Britain’s overall Olympic and Paralympic programmes is stark - £265 million versus £71 million for the Tokyo 2020 cycle. By comparison, the British Olympic team numbered 366 at Rio 2016 whereas the British Paralympic Association took 264 to the Games.
So, Para sports provided 42 per cent of the combined British team for Rio 2016 but receive only 21 per cent of the funding for Tokyo 2020. If every medal is deemed equal, which is the official line, then one can only conclude that UK Sport believes Paralympic medals can be won at lower cost than Olympic ones. But this is to ignore the human cost which must surely be addressed urgently in UK Sport’s planning for Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2024.