In the spotlight, the Paralympic Games continue to conquer the general public in Tokyo. In France, France Télévisions has programmed around a hundred hours of live broadcast, a record for this competition founded in the shadows sixty years ago. Indeed, media coverage and audiences are increasing around the world, despite remaining exposure. “Far below the media coverage of the Olympic Games”, according to Valentine Duquesne, researcher for the French Paralympic and Sports Committee (CPSF).
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President of the French Handisport Federation (FFH) for twenty-seven years (1980-2007), André Auberger measures how far he has come since the first Paralympic Games in Rome, in 1960. In particular thanks to the support, in the 1990s, of Juan Antonio Samaranch, President of the International Olympic Committee from 1980 to 2021: “I knew the time when only a dozen countries were concerned. Apart from the United States, Great Britain and France, which dominated the competitions, the Paralympics did not interest anyone ”, observes the 83-year-old former leader.
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This summer in Japan, there will be more than 130 delegations. Since the early 2000s, Australia, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Russia and Ukraine have redoubled their efforts to catch up, becoming the new strongholds of Paralympism.
England, cradle of Paralympism
The “historic” turning point dates back to the London Games in 2012. “By succeeding in its Games, England has in a way become the cradle of Paralympism, the equivalent of what Greece represents for Olympism”, compares André Auberger. The English organizers, very proactive, have helped to change mentalities, adds Valentine Duquesne, “Thanks to an ambitious communication campaign by assimilating the bodies of these athletes to those of superheroes”.
This image “Ultra-technologist” has fundamentally changed the way the competitors look at them, “Perceived as full-fledged athletes, which was not really the case before”, notes the doctoral student in sociology of sport. A surge of sympathy that was reflected in the figures. ” Channel 4 had broadcast 150 hours of programming, reaching 39.9 million people, or 69% of the population. “
Reserved at the beginning of its history for athletes in wheelchairs and war disabled, the competition has gradually opened up to people with physical and cerebral disabilities, amputees, the visually impaired, as well as – more recently and to a lesser extent – people with mental disabilities. Spectacular new disciplines have emerged which are part of the growing interest of the public: from wheelchair rugby, as a demonstration sport in Sidney in 2000, to para-badminton and para-taekwondo this year.
A stake in attractiveness
Nothing seems able to stop this forward march. Especially since the public’s enthusiasm for the Paralympics is above all “Worn by young people”, rejoices Valentine Duquesne. Quite the opposite of the evolution of the Olympic Games, which try by all means to stem the disinterest of the under 30s by introducing new popular disciplines (hip-hop, skateboarding and perhaps e-sport) .
This is what has led certain nations – like China – to develop very offensive strategies, “In a spirit of performance at all costs, recognizes Valentine Duquesne. The competition, exponential, has only really existed since 2008-2012. There are still niches which offer them the possibility of obtaining medals and the opportunity to make their country shine in front of the whole world ”.
This boom should not, however, mask the daily reality of parasport disciplines. With the exception of England, Canada, Australia and the Scandinavian countries, national and international competitions are still too confidential.
The scope of the competition is widening
138 nations will be represented at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. In 1960, only 23 nations were present with 400 athletes against 4,400 athletes this year.
22 disciplines are concerned, including two new ones: para-badminton and para-taekwondo, and a total of 539 events, at 43 Olympic venues.
With 153 participants in 19 disciplines, France is 8e in the ranking of the number of representatives per nation, far behind Japan (259 athletes), China (255) and Russia (246).
In Rio in 2016, the tricolor delegation (12e in the ranking of medals) collected 28 medals including 9 in gold, 5 in silver and 14 in bronze.