Against the odds, Brazil's Paralympics generates contagious enthusiasm
Before she went to the Olympic Park this week, retired teacher Jane Mocho Moura was led to expect the Paralympics would be a furada – a disappointment or damp squib – with half-empty stadiums and disengaged audiences. What she found, however, was a contagious enthusiasm that has left her buzzing.
“The atmosphere is simply the best imaginable,” she said. “The response couldn’t have been better. The public showed up. There were lots of families, lots of children, lots of elderly people, which I didn’t see at the Olympic Games. The mood was very easygoing. We can only gain from this.”
She is far from alone. Despite gloomy forecasts that the Paralympics might fall flat, a late surge of interest has made this one of the most popular Games in history. With more than a week remaining, Rio 2016 Paralympic ticket sales have already surpassed those of Beijing, which sold 1.5m seats, and organisers predicted the figure would break through the 2m mark by either Tuesday night or yesterday morning.
Only London 2012 did better with 2.8m seats filled (a target that has become unreachable for Rio because there is simply not enough seating capacity at this year’s scaled-down Games). But, given the dire predictions last month when only 12% of seats had been sold and facilities had to be cut because of budget problems, attendance rates have proved an unexpected good-news story, with the proviso that sales do not always translate to bums on seats.
“It turned around. The predictions were very pessimistic but they have been overcome by a wave of positive energy since the opening ceremony,” said a Rio 2016 spokesman, Mario Andrada. “The performances have been wonderful with 120 world records so far. The atmosphere has been magic and the ticket sales have been incredible. Last Saturday, we sold 170,000 tickets – more than we ever sold in a single day during the Olympics. Brazilians had no idea how emotional and entertaining the Paralympics could be.”
Low prices have helped. While Olympics tickets – most of which cost more than 70 reais (£16) – were out of the range of millions of Cariocas, the bulk of Paralympic seats have sold for a far more affordable 10 reals – a snip for a day out in the Olympic park.
But the reasons are by no means solely economic. Stellar athletic contests have generated excitement. The rush of world records has included some extraordinary performances, most notably in the men’s 1500m T13 (visually impaired) event, where the champion, Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka, finished more than 1.7 seconds faster than the gold medal winner in the 1500m at last month’s Olympics, Matthew Centrowitz.
The home fans have had a lot more success to cheer about. Brazil was fifth in the Paralympic rankings with 10 golds and 43 medals in total as of Tuesday evening. In last month’s Olympics, by comparison, Brazil was 13th with seven golds and 19 medals in total. They also have new world record holders to applaud. Among them is Petrucio Ferreira dos Santos, whose 10.57 seconds in the 100m men’s T45/46/47 sprint was 0.15 of a second faster than previously.
Natalia Mayara, Brazil’s top Paralympic tennis player, told local media she was delighted by the carnival-like atmosphere, which she hoped would help the public to show more respect and less prejudice towards disabled people. “Things are changing. You can see the number of people who support us in the same way they supported the athletes of the Olympic Games. Today there is more respect. It is the greatest legacy of the Paralympic Games.”
The media have also given more prominence to disabled athletes than at any time in the past. Although Globo, the dominant conglomerate, was heavily criticised for failing to broadcast the opening ceremony live, the past week has seen many local champions on the front pages of newspapers and TV stations have recorded domestic victories with patriotic pride.
Campaigners for disabled people say the public are driving the agenda. Vanessa Goulart, the executive director of the Independent Life Centre, said: “The media is responding to the vibration from the people. I have been positively surprised they are showing people with disabilities in a different light.”
Others were more cautious in their appraisal. Teresa Costa d’Amaral of the Brazilian Institute for the Rights of People With Disabilities said she would like to see more TV coverage and that despite the ticket sellout, many seats remained empty at a judo competition she had gone to see.
Nonetheless she saw cause for hope in the large numbers of young people attending. “The children that are going to see the Games are growing up without prejudices and are able to create a new generation,” she said.