|Paralympic snowboard cross hopeful Evan Strong poses for a
photo at the NBC/U.S. Olympic Committee promotional shoot in
April 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Evan Strong had been an amputee for only a few months when, on the rack at a Blockbuster store in Maui, he found “Murderball,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Rugby Team.
“I think I watched it about four times in the two days I had it as a rental,” he said.
Strong had been a professional skateboarder before the motorcycle he was riding was hit by an SUV in November 2004, resulting in the then-17-year-old having his left leg amputated just below the knee. But the scenes in "Murderball" of the 2004 Paralympic Games — particularly those scenes showing the amputee runners — opened his mind to a whole new side of competitive sports."
“That was the first time I got an understanding of what the Paralympics were, and the gravity that they held,” he said.
Less than a decade later, Strong is a leading candidate to represent the United States at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in snowboard cross, a discipline of alpine skiing. With an agreement announced Tuesday by the International Paralympic Committee, viewers in the United States will for the first time have an opportunity to watch live and same-day coverage throughout the 10-day event.
NBC Olympics and the United States Olympic Committee agreed to terms with the IPC to air 50 hours of TV programming on NBC and NBC Sports Network while all competitions will be available live via TeamUSA.org. The agreement also covers the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, when the NBC networks will air 66 hours of coverage.
“America wants to see these stories,” said USOC Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird. “And now is the time to do it.”
The NBC coverage in 2014 will include daily broadcasts of the five Paralympic events — alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, sled hockey and wheelchair curling — plus the Opening Ceremony on March 7. NBC will broadcast 3.5 hours of coverage while NBC Sports Network will air 46.5. The live streaming coverage on TeamUSA.org will also include the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
Five sponsors signed on to support the project — BMW, BP, Citi, Liberty Mutual Insurance and Procter & Gamble — though Baird declined to share how much was paid to obtain the rights.
The agreement comes after the London 2012 Paralympic Games attracted unprecedented interest, particularly in Britain. Fans bought a record 2.7 million tickets, filling the stadiums, and British broadcaster Channel 4 attracted so many viewers to its 150-hours of TV coverage that it has since committed to airing 500 hours from the 2016 Paralympic Games.
The Paralympic Games are growing, too. The London Games set all-time records with 4,237 athletes representing 164 countries. The 2014 Games are expected to be the biggest Winter Games yet, with approximately 700 athletes from 45 countries expected. The previous highs were 571 athletes at the Nagano 1998 Paralympic Winter Games and 44 countries represented at the Vancouver Games in 2010.
Following the success of the 2012 Paralympic Games, Baird said the USOC approached NBC about a partnership shortly after the Games ended. NBC, which also holds the rights to broadcast the Olympic Games in the United States, signed on, and the partners submitted a proposal to the IPC.
The agreement will result in unprecedented coverage of the Paralympic Games in the United States. In 2012, the NBC networks aired 5.5 hours of coverage — some of it airing after the event ended — and TV coverage of the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games was limited to just 90 minutes. In 2010, NBC Sports aired an hour-long recap of the Opening Ceremony plus a two-hour recap show on Universal Sports. The United States has never had live coverage of the Paralympic Games in any format.
“It’s absolutely a big deal,” said Strong, the 2012 world champion who won the snowboard cross test event in Sochi in March. “Unfortunately when people ask me what I do and I tell them I’m a Paralympic snowboarder, they say, ‘Paralympic, what is that?’ It’s going to bring tons of recognition and exposure to what we do.”
One of the ongoing challenges within the Paralympic Movement has been changing the perception that the Paralympic Games exist as a charity event rather than as an elite competition. Advancements such as the agreement to share host cities and venues with the Olympic Games since 1988 (summer) and 1992 (winter), and limited exposure through media such as “Murderball” in 2005, have helped raise awareness for the Games. Strong believes the new TV deal will only advance that further.
“Now that it’s going to be on NBC it is going to open people’s eyes to who we are as athletes,” he said.
Baird agrees. She said the USOC and NBC will work “hand-in-hand” on production and promotion, which will both emphasize the elite competitions and the human side of the athletes — something NBC has made a priority in broadcasting every Olympic Games since 1988 and every Olympic Winter Games since 2002.
“The appetite for stories and coverage of our Paralympic athletes has been growing,” Baird said.
Strong, now 26 and a veteran of the X Games, expects the exposure to pay big dividends. First, he says, curious viewers will watch the Paralympic Games for the first time. Then, once the viewers see the elite level of competition, Strong believes they’ll be hooked.
“From this Paralympics to the next Paralympics, I think it’s going to be exponentially bigger, and it is going to be much more diverse in terms of athletes and competition,” said Strong, who is also a professional amputee skateboarder and cyclist.
Naturally, he believes his event will be one that draws a lot of attention. Snowboard cross was added to the Olympic Winter Games in 2006 and makes its debut in the Paralympic Winter Games in 2014. With heats of four snowboarders racing together over jumps, around banked turns and down steep drops, the unpredictable sport quickly became popular on the Olympic side.
“We come from a really exciting sport with a lot of potential for a lot of growth,” Strong said.
Yet the greatest effects of the exposure, Strong believes, will be seen among the young people like he was a decade ago, who see the Paralympic Games for the first time in 2014 and become the next generation of Paralympians.
“I got that inspiration when I saw ‘Murderball’ because I knew it was out there,” he said. “It’s going to be a really amazing journey to see how this whole thing plays out.”
Chrös McDougall has been a writer and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.