The interest of Cariocas (as Rio de Janeiro’s residents are called) in a sporting event can often be measured by scouring the television sets in Rio’s bars and botequims (typical local establishments), which telecast soap operas and sports, in particular, football. It is a tried and trusted method of Tim Vickery, Brazil’s leading foreign correspondent, who sometimes hops out of his Flamengo-based apartment to take a walk around the middle class neighbourhood and sample the interest. On the last night of athletics at the Olympic Games, Vickery found that televisions had tuned into domestic football.
That observation was nigh-dramatic for the Paralympic Games, oft a patronised little cousin in the universe of all-encompassing mega-events, still climbing and clambering hesitantly onto Mount Olympus, insecure about its place and rank in the sporting cosmos. Public disinterest – Brazilians not attending the events – would have had the Paralympic Games fall flat.
The Paralympic Games were launched amid scandal, with gloomy forecasts – budget shortfalls and historic 12% low ticket sales were not just niggles that accompany any organisers, but existential predicaments to the event. Brazil’s federal government offered relief with a last-minute bailout.
Then Thomas Bach snubbed the opening ceremony, the first International Olympic Committee president to do so since 1984. But the International Paralympic Committee did not seem too flustered. They had after all, banned Russia from the Paralympic Games, a brave decision without much politicking. At the opening ceremony, Brazil’s interim president Michel Temer was booed, a reminder of both Brazil’s political divisions and a disenchanted electorate.
But from day one, Cariocas were taken in by the Paralympic Games, a surprise given the marginal position of disabled athletes in Brazilian society. The highlights were numerous, with the focus, not on the various disabilities of the athletes, but on the sporting performances.
Fastest, highest, strongest
American Tatyana McFadden was the track and field star, collecting four gold medals, always finding an extra acceleration with her hands, but falling short in a marathon photo finish against Zhou Lihong from China that with 239 medals, of which 107 were gold medals, topped the table. Johnny Peacock defended his title in the T44 100 metre race. Team Great Britain finished second in the medals table with 147 medals, 67 of which were gold.
Iran, including Morteza Mehrzadselakjani, the tallest man in the country, at 246 cm, won the gold medal in the sitting volleyball with a 3-1 win against Bosnia & Herzegovina. They dedicated their win to cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad, who died on Saturday after a crash in the men’s C4/C5 road race. Australia’s James Turner smashed the T36 800 metre run with a world record time of 2:02.29 before collapsing. Swimmer Theo Curin, France's youngest team member at the age of 16, became their poster boy.
For India, Mariyappan Thangavelu and Devendra Jhajharia won gold medals in the T42 high jump and the javelin throw respectively. In total, the Indians collected four medals, a record high, since the 1984 Games.
And so, after 2347 contested medals, 396 Paralympic records and 210 world records, the Games drew to a close with another joyful ceremony at Rio’s iconic Maracana stadium. The 11-day spectacle has been a success, punctuated by elite performances, a renewed respect for para-athletes and a contagious atmosphere. Brazilians snapped up 2.1 million tickets, according to local officials, the second most of Paralympic history after London 2012.
The success had a manifold explanation: during the closing weekend of the Olympic Games, Brazil excavated more gold by winning both the male competitions in football and volleyball, cue total delirium and pristine chauvinism. Those were the medals that Brazil had craved. The organisers launched an aggressive, last-chance Facebook campaign for Paralympic tickets riding the wave of post-Olympic excitement, emphasising Brazil’s history of Paralympic success with a commendable 7th place and 43 medals at London 2012.
The Brazilian patriotism factor
Another key factor in driving ticket sales were the low prices: tickets started at R$ 10 [about $3], a threshold that allowed almost the entire diaspora of Rio’s society and Brazilians to attend the sporting action. In Brazil, the minimum wage is about $270 per month.
Then, there was, of course, the success of the home team. Brazil conquered 72 medals to finish eighth with 14 gold medals. They failed to achieve a projected top five spot, but there were still plenty of tear-jerker moments. Jefinho, nicknamed the “Paralympic Pele”, and Ricardhinho guided Brazil to a third consecutive title in five-a-side football, the beautiful game for blind and visually-impaired players. Swimmer Daniel Dias turned into a superstar, claiming nine medals in Rio. In total, Dias has won 22 Paralympic medals. His tale was one of overcoming adversity, but ultimately, like all Paralympic athletes, of achieving athletic greatness.
On Sunday, at the closing ceremony, Bob Marley’s lyrics rang around the Maracana – One love, one heart, let’s get together and feel all right – and an athlete conga of nations danced through the aisles. Marley and spectacular fireworks brought to an end the Paralympic Games, and, a cycle of sporting mega-events in Brazil and Rio. The 2019 Copa America is the last prestigious sporting bonanza Brazil will host in this decade.
There are now 1436 days to go until the Paralympic Games of Tokyo in 2020. In Japan, attitudes towards the disabled often border on stigma. As the Rio Paralympics have shown, that, indeed, is a deplorable attitude to have.