The Paralympics may only have begun a few days ago but already we have seen some fantastic athletes do astonishing things. A personal favourite has been the final of the mens T42 200m final. The T42 classification is for athletes who are single above the leg amputees. What made this special for me was that the winner, GB’s Richard Whitehead, is a double leg amputee.
Richard Whitehead is better known as a marathon runner but there is no classification for him in the marathon event at the Paralympics. He has adapted to 200m in the higher T42 race which means he starts with a disadvantage before he begins. Without knees he is slower off the blocks than the others and, through choice, his prosthetics are less advanced. Given all of this and all of the talk at the Games that those countries with the best equipment win most, Richard Whitehead glided to gold.
His fantastic achievement did not, however, hide the glaring difference between this race and the men’s 200m final at the Olympics: the Paralympic race was dominated by rich western countries. By my rough calculations the total GDP of the countries competing in the Paralympic race was over $27 billion, and of those in the Olympic final it was just over $18 billion: a $9 billion opportunity gap.
The Olympic men’s 200m final was itself one of the highlights of the games with Usain Bolt taking gold and Jamaica taking all three podium places. By contrast, Jamaica only has three athletes at the Paralympics and none competing in either the 200 or 100 metre races. Why is there this massive gap in opportunity?
Given the way Richard Whitehead won, it’s hard to answer this by saying it is a simple equipment gap. Funding and sporting opportunity must have a massive role. The answer will not be easy but we must find it and work to reduce the gap.
I believe those of us in more prosperous countries have duty to promote disability rights globally and expand sporting opportunity for all. The ability of Paralympic sport to inspire us all cannot be underestimated.