The countdown continues. And as it does, we reach another Olympic milestone. But not just any other milestone. On 17 April it will be 500 days to the 2012 Paralympic Games.
This means that in 500 days our generation will have the chance to put disability sport squarely on the map of London and show that the UK truly is a country that is welcoming, diverse, tolerant – and dynamic. So this also means that London 2012 must be the most accessible Games ever.
This is the intention. Why? Because it is important and right that the Olympics and Paralympics should be one and the same. But it’s also very fitting that London should take up this challenge because the Paralympics in 2012 are returning to the country that gave the movement its beginning.
As so for the history. As the shadow of war was receding, Dr Ludwig Guttman held the first disability sport competition for wounded WWII war veterans at Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1948. Four years later Dutch athletes took part, making it an international event. And by the 1960 Games 400 athletes from 21 countries joined the competition and it was officially recognised as the ‘Paralympic Games’. The growth of the Paralympic movement over the last 50 years has been phenomenal. In 2012 almost 4200 athletes will compete in 20 sports in 15 different venues over 11 days. That’s a ten-fold increase in competitors since those first 1960 Games. And we expect that 2 million people will come to watch the events, more spectators than have ever watched the Paralympics. If that happens then it will really be something to be proud of.
The UK and Sweden have both achieved a good deal in promoting disability rights and accessibility across the board, whether in the workplace, community or, increasingly, in sport. Sweden set a positive example in the 1990s by offering supplementary support to disabled people so that they had the right to free personal care support. But of course we can still do more – and this is where the Paralympics plays a role.
For our part in Britain we’ll use the Games to encourage more disabled people into sport. Of course this will, we hope, give the impetus necessary to create the next generation of Paralympians. But it will also demonstrate how sport can enrich the lives of disabled people and the inclusiveness and diversity that we’re proud of about Britain today. It has to be about creating a more open and inclusive society. Here and all around the world.
Earlier this week, leading UK supermarket Sainsbury’s launched a grass-roots initiative in East London to get 1 million young people into disability sport and on 17 April Deloitte will issue an independent report on participation in disability sport. Initiatives such as these will really make a difference in boosting participation of disabled people in sport and also in bringing about real and lasting change in society’s behaviour towards our disabled community.