What will the legacy of the 2012 Paralympics be for athletes and spectators?

As the interest around 2012 grows, I cannot help but wonder how much of the build-up will take in the Paralympic Games alongside its able bodied cousin? Anecdotally, the main gripe about Paralympic sport seems to be a lack of understanding surrounding the complex categorisations in many events. Or as one friend put it to me: "I don't get how that bloke with no legs [Oscar Pistorius] gets to run against a bloke with one leg." Throw in a few T46, F13 and LC2's and the general public, along with more than a few inexpert journalists, are pretty confused.

Most of us are aware of the inspirational stories around the Paralympics, but for those who doubt the entertainment value of the sport itself you've only to watch the men's 100m final at the IPC world championships this year – a thrilling race between the favourite, Pistorius, and Jerome Singleton – for a great example of how brilliant it can be.

But though demand for tickets to watch the athletics at the Olympic Games is likely to be through the roof, will it be the same story just a few weeks later at the Paralympic Games? Probably not. I would suggest that a large part of that may simply be down to 2012 fatigue. How long will it be before organisers seriously consider staging the Paralympic Games ahead of the Olympic Games? For a first peek inside the venues, surely a much larger crowd would be drawn to watch Paralympic sport – and many may find themselves enlightened and converted.

Meanwhile, with the British Olympic Association currently wrangling over how much profit it can cream out of 2012 – more if it extracts profits post Olympic Games, before the start of the Paralympic Games – what kind of message is being sent out, albeit inadvertently, to disabled sport and disabled people in the UK?

While we debate the profile of the Paralympics, let's not forget the wider issues around disability and sport that are in danger of being overlooked. We've been bombarded with information on the "legacy" of 2012, but what kind of legacy will there be for the disabled population of this country? Already severely under represented on TV, in government and industry, the Paralympics provide the biggest opportunity for increasing disability awareness in history, but will it have a chance to make a difference?

Interactive, a London-based organisation that works to improve disability equality in sport in the capital, claim the shocking statistic that of 1.5million disabled Londoners, a whopping 78% are inactive. Inclusive Fitness London is working towards achieving a disabled user-friendly kitemark standard for gyms and leisure facilities in all of the London boroughs – currently 52 are accredited, with 34 pending. But with over 1,000 fitness and sports facilities in London available to 6.2million able-bodied Londoners, the numbers just don't square if you're disabled.

And it's not just those wanting to take part in the action who are facing barriers. Disabled football fans have been fighting for years for better access to grounds. While areas for wheelchair supporters are a familiar sight at most Premier League grounds these days, scratch the surface and a myriad of problems can be found.

At Old Trafford – a 2012 venue - access for wheelchair fans operates on a rota system during the season, with demand outweighing availability by 4:1 for some fixtures, while at Stamford Bridge there is room for only three away fans in the wheelchair section. Disabled supporters want to be treated like any other and yet at many clubs home and away fans suffer the indignity of being sat together as though they are one group. While there are positive examples – Arsenal's Emirates Stadium and Wembley boast 0.34% wheelchair seating – football is badly lagging behind national recommendations for disabled facilities.

One bright piece of news is that the newly built 2012 sporting venues are leading the way for disabled access, providing almost three times the Wembley model of access with 1% seating for wheelchair spectators.

But that a large part of the discussion – and statistics available – remains centred on wheelchair accessibility merely underlines yet another problem in the disability debate as only 3-5% of disabled Londoners are wheelchair users, a tiny proportion.

There is such a long road to be travelled before disability sport and disabled people wanting to lead active lifestyles are treated like their able-bodied counterparts. If 2012 is to have a legacy, this should be the most precious of all.


Published on: www.guardian.co.uk.

Published 31/03/2011