LOS ANGELES -- Twenty years ago in Atlanta, U.S. sprinter Tony Volpentest won the Paralympic 100-meter T43-44 in a world record time of 11.36 seconds.
This summer in Rio de Janeiro, another American sprinter, Richard Browne, enters the same event with aims of lowering his own world record from 10.61 seconds.
“To knock nearly one second off a 100-meter world record in 20 years is some achievement and shows our athletes are getting faster, stronger and more agile all the time,” International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven said.
The Paralympic Movement has made massive strides in the past two decades — in performances, in TV coverage, in sponsorships, in participation — and now Craven wants to take a giant step forward in disability awareness.
Craven, speaking at the Team USA Media Summit on Monday — six months before the 2016 Paralympic Games begin in Rio — called on the United States to take on a leadership role in the effort, with the Paralympic Games playing a major role.
“The United States has always been a global leader in social change, including in regards to disabilities,” Craven said in a prepared opening statement.
Despite the recent progress in the Paralympic Games, the challenges remain vast for disability awareness among the general public, an issue highlighted in a new survey by the IPC and U.S. Paralympics that Craven described as an “eye opener.”
Among the results, the survey found that 92 percent of Americans think there are problems with the way people with disabilities are treated in this country, and 71 percent of respondents think people with disabilities are often ignored or forgotten about.
Meanwhile, half of the respondents witnessed someone being discriminated against because of a disability.
Kaitlyn Verfuerth has experienced this lack of awareness firsthand. A two-time Paralympian in wheelchair tennis who is on target to qualify for a third Games in Rio, Verfuerth said she still regularly gets asked if she is a Special Olympian, referring to the organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities.
“When somebody says that, then I say no actually I’m a Paralympian and explain the difference,” she said.
Awareness for the Paralympics is growing, though — especially in the United States — and that’s important, Craven said, pointing to results from the survey that show that the Paralympic Games are a powerful tool for changing those perceptions. According to the survey, one in three British adults changed their attitudes toward people with disabilities after the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“Rio can be the catalyst for another level of education and inclusion,” Craven said.
The London Games marked a turning point for the Paralympic Games, with vast TV coverage and unprecedented local interest that included 2.76 million spectators.
Since then, NBC and NBCSN have upped their broadcast offerings considerably in the United States, with 50 hours of TV coverage from the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games and 66 hours this summer from Rio. That’s up from just 5 1/2 hours of TV programming from London in 2012. Meanwhile, TeamUSA.org now offers live streaming coverage of the entire competition.
In addition to the broadcast gains, U.S. officials are aiming to grow awareness through events such as the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for cycling, swimming and track and field this June and July in Charlotte, marking the first time a Paralympic trials will include multiple sports. It’s expected to be the largest Paralympic trials event in U.S. history with more than 400 athletes.
These trends coincide with a general uptick in Paralympic Games participation worldwide.
Approximately 265 Paralympic athletes are expected to represent Team USA in Rio, which is up from the 227 who competed four years ago in London. The total field is also expected to continue growing, with 4,350 athletes from more than 170 countries competing in 22 sports, up from the approximately 4,200 athletes from 164 countries and 20 sports in London.
And in the view of Craven, a five-time Paralympian for Great Britain, the best is yet to come.
“I am confident that with more TV coverage than ever before in the U.S., the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games are the best opportunity to further transform U.S. attitudes,” Craven said.
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.