Q&A: Paralympics boss says Games can be a force for inclusion in divisive times

Andrew Parsons became the president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in 2017. In that time he was seen the Paralympic movement grow even more than the watershed event at the London 2012 Games.

With one year to go before the Tokyo Paralympics, Parson detailed an ambitious plan for the future to CBC Sports, including his stance on doping and playing a major role in human rights.

I want to start with a question that’s a little away from Tokyo and some of the other issues. So what keeps you up at night?

Andrew Parsons: [Laughs] It’s not being able to deliver what I promised — to help nations around the world grow and to help the Paralympic movement in general stop scratching the surface of its potential. Of course, I have some other major concerns. We are in this together with the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and the whole sports movement which is it to keep sport relevant.  There are some other formats that are coming up and some other activities such as esports and different types of sport tournaments not traditionally organized under the sport structure of the last century. 

I also think there is more skepticism than ever before about the cost, relevance and legacy of the Games. We have seen the referendums [against bids]. This is something that really scares me because it will mean much less investment from government and partners. 

When you look ahead specifically to Tokyo 2020 — how is it looking compared to London 2012 which is considered the benchmark for media coverage and spectators?

AP: London brought the movement to a new level. And in a way Rio 2016, because of the challenges and things like poor promotion, was maybe from that perspective even more important than London. Despite the problems, the Brazilian public still came out.  They created an incredible atmosphere, embracing the athletes and Paralympic sport. Tokyo will not face the challenges of Rio — thank God.  

We are working with a very reliable organizing committee. They are promoting the Games in the same way as they are the Olympics. The media is super excited already. We have research that shows that the awareness of the Paralympics is much higher with one year to go in Tokyo than it was at this stage for London 2012. We have more people in Japan that can name Japanese Paralympic athletes than people in the UK could name British athletes in this same period of time prior to the Games. This is because commercial partners are promoting Paralympic athletes and using them in their commercial campaigns. Using a Para athlete in Japan like this is a breakthrough for that society.


The 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics will be a biggest time for change, according to Parsons. (Getty Images )

You recently lifted the Russian suspension as a result of the doping scandal even though one of conditions was that Russia had to accept the findings of the McLaren report which concluded there was state-sponsored doping — something Russia refused to do. How do you convince athletes from other nations that they are competing against other clean athletes. 

AP: We took the hardest possible stance against Russia and we are very proud of what we did in the lead up to Rio. But immediately after Rio, we started to work with the Russian Paralympic Committee so that they could come back but in the right way, meaning that they would have to have policies and procedures in place and robust testing plans. We had a Task Force to oversee that process. The Task Force was against lifting the suspension exactly because of the acknowledgement of the McLaren report that didn’t occur.

It became clear to us that we were at an impasse because we understood that the acknowledgement of the McLaren report would never happen. We could not punish a country or Paralympic Committee forever because of the reluctance of some of their leaders. So, we decided to bring some conditions to guarantee a very robust testing plan that the athletes need to follow if they want to compete in Tokyo. The Russian athletes will be the most scrutinized athletes in the world when it comes to the Paralympic movement.

When you look ahead to the future you have a Paralympics coming up in Los Angeles in 2028.  I’ve seen you talk about how the IPC can be proud of how far you’ve come in 30 years — but you’ve also said you are only scratching the surface of your potential. What do you mean by that?

AP: We should be far more ambitious. The Games are mature enough to support and partner with other organizations around the world to have a bigger influence — especially around human rights. Using the Paralympic movement to promote inclusion for people with disabilities but also promoting diversity is an agenda that is needed in today’s world where we see so much polarization. You see [this polarization] in the United States.

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I see it in my own country [Brazil] and diversity goes in the other direction — respecting and valuing people who are different from you. That’s why I think the Paralympics is more needed than ever before. We have to promote this through sport. We are a sport organization where our athletes are ambassadors. In a way, we want them to be our activists too to help make a profound impact in the world when it comes to these agendas of inclusion, diversity and human rights. 

You asked before what keeps me up at night. Every day, when I wake up, I think about L.A. [2028]. These are the Games that can really change the Paralympic movement because our presence in the U.S. is still not that strong and it’s probably one of the most important markets in the world. We are not even scratching the surface [in terms of commercial partnerships and broadcasting]. We have seen a change in leadership in the USOPC [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] now [formerly USOC].

They finally put Paralympics in their name. They started giving the same prize money to Olympians and Paralympians. This sends a strong message of equality and this was something that only happened last year. We have a very committed leadership in LA2028 that sees the potential of the Paralympic Games and amplifying the reach of the Paralympics is one of their main pillars. We have a perfect storm coming in 2028. I think L.A. will be the moment when we can stop scratching the surface and really play a major role in this human rights agenda. It will be the moment when we are considered maybe not the most important sporting event in the world but the most important sporting event in the world that drives societal change. 

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