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Wheelchair track athletes competing

The concept of “inclusion” is pervasive in the current sport environment, with organizations from the community to international levels considering how to ensure all individuals have access and opportunity to participate. Generally, inclusion means that all people, regardless of their abilities, disabilities, or specific needs, have the right to be respected and appreciated as valuable members of their communities. However, inclusion becomes a challenging concept in high performance sport which, by its very nature, is exclusive as it aims to restrict access based on specific performance standards.

In the context of mega-events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, “inclusion” becomes more complex. Historically, athletes with a disability (para athletes) have competed in separate competition events. Over time, the model of separate events has seemed counter-productive to respecting and valuing all athletes. Since 2001, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have in effect become a single mega-event, with the two Games separated by a 2-week window, and one Organizing Committee (OC) designing, developing, and delivering the entirety of the Games and any associated legacies. The principle of this model is followed by other large-scale Games such as the Pan American and Parapan American Games, and Commonwealth Games (which is an entirely integrated event).

From a hosting perspective, a single OC offers a number of organizational and functional efficiencies (e.g. a single organization liaising with stakeholders including governments, sport partners, broadcasters, and corporate partners). But it also presents some challenges. Molloy and Misener (2016) have written about the importance of “distinction” – the recognition of and respect for the excellence that sets athletes apart – in considering the management of large-scale Games where para sport is on the program. If the Games are not managed properly, there is a risk that this distinction, or the demonstration of respect and appreciation for all athletes, may be lost.

The purpose of this article is to consider the various aspects of managing a mega-event that includes para athletes, in relation to the concept of distinction. The aim is to highlight both the opportunities and challenges of ensuring that para sport athletes’ needs and desires are appreciated and valued in the same fashion as able-bodied athletes in the Games environment.

Sochi, RUSSIA – Mar 7 2014 – The Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee)
Management integration

Since the inception of the Paralympic Games in 1960, the Olympic and Paralympic Games have been held in the same year. In more recent history, as of the Seoul 1988 Summer Games and Albertville 1992 Winter Games, the events were held in the same city with just a few weeks separating the two. It was not until 2001 that a formal agreement was put in place between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee ensuring that Olympic host cities would also stage the Paralympics. The “One Bid, One City” concept was formed as a way to protect the hosting of the Paralympic Games, such that the staging of the Paralympics is automatically included in the bid for the Olympic Games. The agreement formally recognises that the host city has an obligation to stage both events, maximizing the use of venues, facilities and infrastructure. The 2002 Salt Lake City Games was the first time that one organizing committee managed both events.

Accessibility and inclusion during and after Major Multisport Games

I recently led a research team that undertook a longitudinal study examining how different types of events addressed the mandates of accessibility and inclusion in Games with one OC (Misener et al., 2018). In each case we examined, the OC had set a vision to increase access in and around the event venues, and to create more inclusive community sport opportunities. What we found was that venue and accessibility guidelines established by international sport governing bodies and local organizing committees do not necessarily result in sustained social change, greater inclusion, or increased local community accessibility. For example, in many cases physical infrastructure was built to minimal standards, used temporary methods, or, where changes did remain, failed to consider the intersection between new infrastructure and old (e.g. curbs, sidewalks, materials). Some might argue that it is not up to the event to change the spatial landscape of the city environment, yet it is important for committees to consider how the event structures interconnect with civic spaces if sustained social change is desired. For example, if a new sport venue is built with high accessibility standards but no accessible transportation is available or exterior connecting spaces lack the same level of accessibility, the inclusivity of the event and its legacies is reduced.

The risk of “able-bodied bias”

Within the games’ environment, our findings also show that an “able-bodied bias” often permeated decision-making by the OC. The needs, interests and experiences of para athletes were often overlooked because those making decisions lacked the embodied experience of disability. Examples of the impact on event scheduling, infrastructure, and marketing and communications are highlighted below, drawing on our research and the work of colleagues such as Byers et al. (2019) and Darcy (2017).

Scheduling: The scheduling and structure of events for athletes with specific access and/or support needs, or with different classifications, requires significant thought and consideration. For example, if a para sport event schedule is based on that for able-bodied athletes, an athlete that requires additional time to accommodate assistance in preparing for competition and entering the field of play (pool, court, field, etc.) could be considered to be disrupting the “normal” scheduling of events. Further, the field of competition within the specific sports and events needs to be carefully considered to ensure appropriate timing and level of integration of the para sports. During our observational research in Glasgow at the 2014 Commonwealth Games (Misener et al., 2019), I witnessed a swimming race for para athletes with mixed classification that seemed to be tagged on to the end of a long day of swimming competition. Not only did this demonstrate a lack of understanding of athlete needs, the event also felt like a charitable competition where some spectators cheered on the lone athlete finishing the race, while other spectators were rushing to exit the venue.

Sporting Spaces: While accessible competition facilities, transportation, and housing are required by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC Accessibility Guide, 2015), other components of the Games can all too easily be overlooked. These include public festival spaces, sustained city transportation, and training venues (often existing recreation facilities). The temporary changes are often designed for efficiency and with the minimum level of accessibility required. This quote from a Games-related news article highlights the challenges that cities and OCs face in integrating the requirements of accessible sporting spaces and public spaces:

The brand new palaces of sport which I encounter are beautifully smooth…[but] the problem comes at the edges, where they join the old world. Tackling one new perfectly smooth bit of access, I am blocked abruptly by the lack of a dropped curb. Leaving the Velodrome, I descend a ramp to an existing road, where the join looks insignificant but stops me dead. Elsewhere, gravel scattered on paving jams my computerised push rims and my chair has a tantrum (Melanie Reid Quote from Sunday Times, UK 2014)

Mens wheelchair basketball competes against Columbia at the 2019 ParaPan American Games in Lima, Peru – Photo Scott Grant

Marketing and Communication: An integral part of any major event is the marketing and communications strategies employed to attract sponsors and spectators. Quality strategies are those that provide para athletes with a clear and distinct focus. OCs need to work closely with media as they are paramount for awareness raising, attitude formation, circulation of ideas, and framing the narratives about inclusive Games. The OC for the Toronto 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games did a remarkable job in ensuring equity of representation of para athletes in the marketing and communications surrounding the Games, offering them the clear and distinct focus so deserved. Unfortunately, Toronto was the exception to the norm – OCs too often provide minimal levels of visibility for para athletes. However, the Toronto Games did fall prey to one trap – the portraying of para athletes as “superheroes.” A quote from one member of the Toronto OC demonstrates how easily marketing and communications teams rely on narratives focused on superheroes, celebrities or pity. “It’s so easy to get the para athletes…they have such a great story that can really inspire people.”

Another critical element of event communication that can be overlooked from an inclusion perspective is the educational opportunity presented by the Games. While doing observation work at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, our research team, decked out in bright purple logoed research shirts, were regularly asked to explain the events and the field of play. Little information about the sports, athletes, rules or classification was available for spectators, or where it was available it was often not in alternative accessible formats. Given the unique nature of para sport, it is important for OCs to ensure ample information is available to engage spectators in the events. During the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Channel 4 developed the Lexi Classification System which was later used in Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. This system helped spectators understand classification and the rules of the sport, enriching the experience at the venue.

Legacies: The lexicon of legacy has been a part of the sport event agenda since the early 1990’s, but in recent years has become a cornerstone of event hosting. Cities and OC’s are expected to deliver positive outcomes for the local community in terms of physical infrastructure, and economic and social benefits. From the perspective of para sport, there has also been an emphasis on using events to influence social change to positively impact the lives of persons with disabilities in the local communities. As per the IPC agenda (IPC, 2017), the emphasis is typically on four areas: accessible infrastructure, sporting structures that support para sport (e.g. coaches, classifiers, para organizations), attitudes and perceptions of disability, and sporting opportunities. In our work around Games legacies, we found that OCs have a sincere desire for such sustained social change, but confront a number of challenges in delivering these legacies. In some situations, OCs are too overwhelmed with the task of hosting the Games that the social change legacies are victims of capacity issues. In other situations, the social change legacies are assumed to be an automatic result of the events, rather than requiring considerable planning, effort and collaboration.

Recommendations for maintaining a focus on para sport

Based on our research at multiple Games of different types, here are three key lessons for OCs and host cities.

  • Stakeholder engagement: A designated committee or event management position is an important minimal first step in ensuring adequate attention and distinction is given to para sport. However, a meaningful voice for persons with disabilities needs to be integrated across all management areas of the Games. The reality is that only a small number of persons with disabilities are typically represented in positions of authority in sport organizations or at events. Persons with disabilities, and/or allies, need to be able to influence decision making and identify the structural inequalities they face in everyday life so these can be addressed alongside the organization of the sporting event. In this way, the use of an integrated OC can be both efficient and effective at delivering a successful event and ensuring distinction for para sport athletes. To evaluate this stakeholder perspective, there are few questions to consider:
    • Does the OC have a senior operations position dedicated to para sport aspects of the Games?
    • Are disability advisory groups part of the decision-making processes of the Games and related legacy programs?
    • Do partner organizations (communications, government, sponsors) have a commitment to accessibility and inclusion in their mandate? How is this reflected in the management and contracts surrounding the event?
  • Policy Frameworks: Our research demonstrated that countries/cities with strong diversity and inclusion policy frameworks use these policies to inform event and legacy planning. National and international commitments that can be leveraged to support diversity and inclusion at Games include:

These policy frameworks provide a backdrop for decision making around sport practices, accessible infrastructure, and marketing and communications to ensure all aspects of the event offer greater levels of accessibility. For Canadians, we are well on the path to considering diversity and inclusion in all aspects of sport. With the recent passing of Bill C-81 The Accessible Canada Act, national sport and multisport service organizations, provincial/territorial sport organizations, community sport clubs, and major events will be required to find ways to enhance the full and equal participation of all persons, especially persons with disabilities.

  • Legacy Programs: A key indicator of an event’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion is the integration of these priorities into legacy programs. For the Toronto 2015 Pan American and Parapan American Games, the OC prioritized accessibility and inclusion as a key legacy aspect of the Games. This meant that organizers, Games operations, legacy planning, and related elements considered distinction for para athletes, accessibility of venues and related sport services, and inclusive opportunities throughout and beyond the Games. A key example of this is the Ontario Parasport Collective, a group of provincial, multisport, and disability sport organizations that came together around the Games to leverage the event. Now four years after the event, the group continues to work together towards increasing opportunities for parasport and advocating for policies that support the development of parasport in the province of Ontario. This type of commitment before, during and after the Games was critical, not only to the successful delivery of the Games, but also to ensuring positive outcomes from the event.
Looking ahead

Major multisport Games that have a clear focus on accessibility and inclusion in all organizational and management aspects of the Games are more likely to successfully support para sport and create sustained social change beyond the Games. As we look towards Tokyo 2020, which has the resources to realize an inclusive Games, the OC’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion is yet to be tested. With the recommendations above in mind, Canadians, and indeed the world, will be evaluating how the stated commitments to accessibility and inclusion are put into practice at the Games and in the event legacies.

About the Author(s)

Dr. Laura Misener is an Associate Professor and the Director of the School of Kinesiology at Western University. Her research focuses on how sport and events can be use as instruments of social change, with an emphasis on how events for persons with a disability can positively impact community accessibility and social inclusion.


Byers, T., Hayday, E., & Pappous, A. S. (2019). A new conceptualization of mega sports event legacy delivery: Wicked problems and critical realist solution. Sport Management Review.

Darcy, S. (2017). Accessibility as a key management component of the Paralympics. In Managing the Paralympics (pp. 49-92). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

International Paralympic Committee (2017). IPC Handbook: Paralympic Games Chapter. Retrieved from

McGillivray, D., McPherson, G., & Misener, L. (2018). Major sporting events and geographies of disability. Urban Geography39(3), 329-344.

Misener, L., McPherson, G., McGillivray, D. & Legg, D. (2018). Leveraging Disability Sport Events: Impacts, Promises, and Possibilities. London, UK: Routledge.

Misener, L. & Molloy, K. (2018). Managing the Paralympic Games. In I. Brittain, Routledge Handbook of Paralympic Games (p. 197-219)London, UK: Routledge.

Reid, M. (2014) Spinal Column: a new kind of tiredness. Sunday Times. Retrieved from

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.