The 15th Summer Paralympic Games gets underway today in Rio and following the extraordinary Olympic Games 2 weeks’ prior, it promises to be an equally riveting fortnight of action.
But the performances of the world’s elite athletes with disabilities belies the very circumstances that got them to Rio in the first place, so much so, that whatever means they used to get there potentially presented an even bigger challenge than their participation in the Games itself.
While their amateur form appears at odds with their professional substance, these athletes still epitomise and embody the pure definition of the term ‘sport’, which is an activity performed for enjoyment and entertainment.
Many of these athletes are not household names, nor do some of them receive even close to the same funding as their able-bodied counterparts. And one of their biggest challenges is proving their worth to funding sources in the in-between Games years; many sponsors seem to think that the athletes only require financial assistance once every 4 years and, while I’m sure it is appreciated, it smacks of tokenism.
But that is changing.
The Paralympics has catapulted up our list of events to follow religiously and many fans seem to have removed the compassion-coloured glasses that have previously been used to watch the Games and have started to recognise that these athletes are the real deal and deserve an equal appreciation to able-bodied athletes.
There is now a significant and growing proportion of this athletic group that is fully professional; one just needs to look at the number of world records that were broken in London 2012 and that in many disciplines there were more challengers for titles than participants there just to make up the numbers. I have no doubt that the Rio 2016 edition will be no different.
What costs are involved with being a Paralympian?
The Australian Paralympic Committee (APC), which is not a government agency, is sending 177 athletes to Rio at a cost $7 million (c.$40,000 per athlete) during the event. That amount consists of providing essential services such as uniform, equipment, medical support, flights and accommodation, support staff, psychologists and establishing a medical base. Therefore, it stands to reason that a Paralympian could incur higher costs than an Olympian due to the additional services required.
But that isn’t the case. In the 4-year build up to Rio, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) – through the government’s organisation, the Australian Institute of Sport – has funded Olympic sports to the tune of $377 million (422 athletes plus support staff) and Paralympic sports about $62 million.
On a per-athlete basis, Olympians, therefore, receive more than double their Paralympian equivalents . Despite this difference in figures, Paralympian athletes won 70% of the medals won by Australians in London in 2012.
These figures are not a slight on the Olympians of course; these are just the facts. They also have to be tempered with the fact that a lot of countries like Argentina, Australia, the USA and New Zealand are also known for their Olympians and Paralympians sharing access to elite training facilities.
In terms of other hidden costs, there is the story of Danelle Umstead, an American alpine skier who is legally blind and has multiple sclerosis. She and her husband Rob won bronze medals in both the downhill and super combined at the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games.
Rob quit his job as a ski coach to become her full-time guide and they spend $US90,000 a year on equipment, travel, accommodation and childcare for their son. In Paralympic years, those costs blow out, but they are assisted by sponsors who come to the party every 4 years, as mentioned before.
How do countries fund their Paralympic organisations?
In the USA, all Olympic and Paralympic athletes are funded from a central Fund (Team USA Fund) through tax-deductible donations from everyday people and businesses and not by the government. Media exposure, therefore, leads to more revenue and in the last decade publicity for Paralympians has soared.
In Australia, government funding assists Paralympic sports but does not contribute to the costs of actually getting to the Games, as mentioned above. Similarly to the USA model, the Australian Paralympic Foundation was founded in January this year as a division of the APC to raise funds to cover the gap. Cadbury Australia then announced it was making a $1 million contribution to the Paralympic Team headed to Rio.
Australia does have the advantage over many countries in that the performance criteria used to determine government funding is the same for all athletes, able-bodied or otherwise.
On the macro level, the International Olympic Committee has precluded venues from using their existing sponsor logos and instead must use the logos of official Olympic sponsors; this rule doesn’t exist at the Paralympics, which opens the door to more funds.
What are the sources of funding that enable athletes to travel to the Paralympic Games?
While funds do originate from governments, sporting organisations and foundations, and corporations, there are still a few options open to Paralympians to obtain sponsorship through their own channels:
Athletes can obtain scholarships to play sport at tertiary institutions and these scholarships might include funds for disability-friendly housing.
Corporates are always on the hunt for sponsorship value while at the same time meeting corporate needs. Athletes can provide that value, and similarly can meet their athletic financial needs.
Through media exposure, Paralympic athletes are being given more opportunities to play a part in companies’ marketing strategies, which is a perfect match as they embody tenacity and hope, a powerful combination in getting the company narrative across to both employees and customers.
Athletes like Australian Paralympic multiple gold medal swimmer, Matt Levy OAM, have taken matters into their own hands and set up online funding pages such as this one, to cover personal and family costs not met by other official sources of funding:
Costs such as travel and accommodation to swimming meets outside of the Games, training fees and things like massages, yoga and pilates are not covered.
However, it is a win-win for everybody as Matt has declared that he will make himself available to donors for publicity and marketing purposes, should they require.
Means to an end
While the majority of this article has indeed mentioned “money”, that is really not the end goal for Paralympians. Money is simply a means to and end, that end being taking part in an activity that they love and an opportunity to overcome adversity through the means of sport.