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SOCHI PARALYMPICS: A TEST FOR ACCESS
By Arthur George and Gary Norris Gray
Sochi is about to compete with itself to determine whether Russia and the world are ready for the 2014 Paralympics. The Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, scheduled from March 7 to 16 will be a test of the host country’s commitment to accessibility for disabled athletes and spectators, a possible pattern for improved infrastructure and services for the disabled, and the resolve of media to cover the Paralympics in-depth following the recently-concluded Winter Games.
Russia triumphed with the most medals in the recently-concluded Olympics, and brings strong teams to the Paralympics, suggesting that Russia may want to use these Paralympic Games as a showcase for national excellence and progress. Corporate and communications entities have also lined up to sponsor and display these games widely across various media.
This is in a country which in 1980 refused to host the Paralympics on the claim of one former Soviet official said “There are no invalids in the U.S.S.R.” It seemed very odd, at the same time the Soviet officers were stating that disabled citizens worked at the state’s post office. A report issued last September by Human Rights Watch titled “Barriers Everywhere” criticized the lack of adaptive infrastructure and services for the disabled throughout Russia.
The Associated Press reported February 19 that wheelchair access ramps at Sochi’s cross-country ski & biathlon center aren’t easily visible, while stairs for walking access are steep and icy. Door frames raised from the floor are all over the venues, including doorways leading into lower seating areas and wheelchair seating at Bolshoy Ice Dome. In many places, ramps are simple sheets of thin plywood, not always flush with the ground and almost always added on to the structures they connect rather than being built in during initial construction.
Evgeniy Bukharov, head of the Paralympic Integration Department for the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, said organizers have been trying to work with developers, construction companies, and fire officials, among others, to prioritize accessibility issues while meeting their needs. Raised door frames, for example, are required in some areas by fire officials so air can’t get under the door. Staff members are in place at each venue to handle complaints on access issues and find problems that need fixing. In some areas, like ski venues, Bukharov said more personnel are planned in places where accessible infrastructure are not practical.
Arly Velasquez, an Alpine ski Paralympian for Mexico who attended the Olympic Games, said buses were accessible to those in wheelchairs but drivers frequently did not know how to use the lifts, forcing him to either demonstrate himself or wait for another bus. Bukharov admitted that bus drivers for the Olympics were hired relatively last-minute but will train more for the Paralympian’s using lifts on buses.
Craig Spence, a spokesman for the International Paralympics Committee (“IPC”), acknowledged the task set for Sochi and expressed the hope that accessibility will improve at the start of the Games. “Russia has a zero track record in terms of accessibility and they have had to get up to speed in seven years but we are confident and expect everything to be ready for Games time.”
Spence said that that the fact that there are issues and attention around disability access is a sign of progress. The issues themselves, Spence said, are a sign of how far Russia has come since winning the games seven years ago. Even where there are problems with lifts, for example, “That the lift is there in the first place … is a step in the right direction,” Spence said.
Greg Westlake of the Canadian sledge hockey team is glad the Paralympics follow the Olympics by two weeks, with the experience of the Olympics providing opportunity to improve sites that were said to be barely ready for The Winter Games. “Hopefully they have everything running smooth and by the time we get there everything should be completely set up.”
The Russians have invested heavily in a barrier-free environment for the Sochi games infrastructure with the IPC hoping the system is rolled out across Russia in the future. Spence said that hundreds of buses with disability access used around Olympic venues, for example, are expected to be put to use around the country after the games end.
IS THE WORLD WATCHING?
Russia-based reporter James Ellingworth has observed that Russia’s Paralympians did well in the Games for years, but were rarely covered on any major Russian TV network. He said there is no way for state TV to ignore a Paralympic Games taking place at home. He also observed that Russia’s Sports Ministry, which always loves gold medals, is pouring funding into elite disabled sports, but there’s much less available for the many people whose trip to the nearest grocery store means an undignified haul up and down steps.
Spence of the IPC believes that the success of Russia’s Olympic team, who topped the medal standings with 33 medals, including 13 golds, will act as a boost to the Paralympics. “A successful home team means people want to go and see the sport and see the venues. I don’t think we have ever had an event with as big a potential to have an impact on the host country.”
Ellingworth reported in November of a poster campaign in the Moscow subway system featuring some of the country’s Paralympic heroes and declaring “Everyone’s opportunities are limitless!” a turnabout on the common Russian phrase “a person with limited opportunities,” a euphemism for disability.
However, Sports Illustrated reported on February 23 that there’s little evidence the Paralympics are even coming to Sochi. The only visible promotion around the city appeared to be the occasional sign with the words “Paralympic Games” printed on a blue background along the newly constructed highways. On TV, Olympic-themed talk shows and news reports rarely mentioned the upcoming Paralympics, let alone raise awareness about specific events or athletes. The three Russian state TV channels that broadcast the Winter Games promised to give the Paralympics ample airtime and advertise them, and have featured some segments about the Russian national team — the country’s largest Paralympic squad ever — and other competitors in an effort to promote viewership and ticket sales. However, TV ads for The Game’s coverage are scarce, and the channels’ websites provide little or no information about their planned telecasts.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, President and CEO of the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, said that forty accredited broadcasters will beam the Paralympics to more countries around the world than any Paralympic Winter Games in history.
In 2010 NBC ceased broadcasting the Para Games after a week citing poor ratings. This year NBC and NBC Sports Network will combine to air 50 hours of television, starting on March 7 with the Opening Ceremony. It will be followed by daily coverage of all five Paralympic sports in the Sochi program, before the Games’ Closing Ceremony is broadcast on March 16.
In addition, the website TeamUSA.org will live stream all events from the Paralympic Winter Games. This unprecedented coverage is made possible through the support of sponsors BMW, BP, Citi, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter and Gamble, and Hartford Insurance.
The Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) promises more than 65 hours of broadcast and up to 350 hours of digital streaming, connecting Canadians via five broadcast and digital platforms connecting the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Radio-Canada, Sportsnet, Accessible Media Inc., and Yahoo Canada Sports, underwritten by business sponsorship from Petro-Canada, Canadian Tire, Air Canada, and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
Channel 4 in Britain will have 150 hours of coverage, and has hired and trained disabled reporters. Coverage will be spread over 50 hours of television, over 100 hours of additional coverage on two Paralympic Extra streams available as video on demand on computer, smartphone and tablet. Highlights of medals and key moments will be available on the Channel 4 Paralympic website, YouTube, and Facebook and Twitter; and there will be live blogging throughout the Games, sharing the latest news, photos, videos, comment and opinion.
Almost 700 athletes from more than 40 countries, including 62 athletes from Russia, are expected to compete in the Paralympics. There are no participants from Africa; however there are Black athletes from the United States, Canada, Great Britain and France. Athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities will compete in five events: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, sledge hockey, and wheelchair curling.
Disabled citizens have historically been isolated by the Russian state, their physical differences kept under wraps. The practice of separating people with disabilities from “normal” society has roots in the Stalin era when, in which the dictator tried to keep disabled war veterans out of the public eye because their visible amputations were an explicit reminder that the Second World War was not all victory and celebration. More recently, disabled people have included injured veterans of the Chechen wars or the Soviet war in Afghanistan, chapters of history that many would prefer to forget, even as many of those same veterans win gold medals.
All of these preparations could be dismantled because of the current political and military conflict in the Ukraine.
We hope the Paralympics are peaceful and joyous.
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