The long-awaited Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are upon us, after a period of very challenging decision-making for the IOC and Japanese authorities. Three days before the Opening Ceremony, the 138th IOC Session kicked off in Japan’s capital. Among a range of decisions taken, perhaps the most tangible change was that of the Olympic motto – with the inclusion of ‘Together’ after ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. Though to some this will seem like a minor footnote, the change does reflect the viewpoint of the IOC towards their standout event – the Olympic Games have always stood for much more than a sports competition. As IOC President Thomas Bach remarked at the Session: “We want to put a strong focus on solidarity. That’s what the word ‘together’ means…solidarity fuels our mission to make the world a better place through sport”.

This emphasis on solidarity fits neatly with the ideals of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) – whose vision is to ‘make for an inclusive world through Para sport’. Since 2001, the IOC and the IPC have had an agreement which guarantees that host cities are contracted to organise both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. And so, 16 days after the Summer Olympic Games comes to a finale, it will be the Paralympic Games that takes center stage in Tokyo.

But in light of the inclusion of ‘Together’ in the Olympic motto, could now be the right time to bring these two events together, rather than apart? Here, two BCW Sports colleagues debate:

Should the Olympics and Paralympics be hosted ‘Together’?

Yes – Lars Haue-Pedersen, Managing Director, BCW Sports

Values – As indicated with the amendment to the Olympic motto, the Olympic Games is about far more than on-field competition. The three values of Olympism are not pure performance assets such as speed, power and agility, but rather more broad values such as excellence, friendship and respect. The Olympic Movement is built around the notion that sport can help build a more united, tolerant and inclusive world, as the change in the motto to include ‘Together’ clearly reflects. What better way to show these values in action by incorporating disabled athletes into the biggest sports event in the world?

Exposure – At the first Olympic Games in 1896, women were banned from competing. Fast forward 125 years, Tokyo 2020 is the first gender-balanced Games in history. This is a major milestone, and while more work must be done on the development and growth of women’s sports, the Olympic Games has provided a tremendous platform for female athletes to shine and attract broader audiences than female-only events could do (and vice-versa for the men!). The same rationale could also be applied to disabled sport vis-à-vis able-bodied sport. Since it’s initiation, the Paralympics has done a tremendous job of progressing disabled sport, but it will perhaps never get the same media coverage as the Olympic Games as a standalone event. With the Paralympics now over 60 years old, now could be the right time to take the next step in the evolution of para-sport by integrating it into the Olympic Games, providing enhanced coverage and reducing any connotation of the Paralympics as a secondary event.

Positioning – For a sports event to stand out and resonate with its existing and potential new audiences, there must be a clear positioning. The Olympics has this to an extent – but the ‘on-field’ action for athletes is largely the same, with some sports even following the exact format as their World Championships. So, what can be done to ensure that being an ‘Olympic Champion’ retains a sense of appeal that being ‘World Champion’ does not?
Integrating the Paralympics could be the answer here. Imagine an able-bodied indoor volleyball match followed straight away by a sitting volleyball match, with both able-bodied and disabled athletes able to cheer on their teammates as one. Imagine one medal table, with athletes of all events being treated and lauded the same. The Olympic Games has its unique selling points, but it’s strongest point could be the complete integration of able-bodied and disabled sport.

No – Cameron Angus, Account Director, BCW Sports

Logistics –  It is perhaps not the most exciting point, but it may be the most important one. Staging mega events such as the Olympic Games or Paralympic Games is an enormous mission, that takes years of preparation. Holding both events at the same time, both for the IOC/IPC, the International Federations of the different sports, and the host cities themselves, would be a massive undertaking. The Tokyo Olympics consists of more than 11,000 athletes from across the world. The Paralympics is expected to include just under 4,500 – which would mean an extra 40% in competitors. Without significant cuts to the programmes of one, or both, this would require big increases in the surrounding infrastructure and personnel, all of which would have a cost, both financially and environmentally – at a time when efficiency in sports events is more desirable than ever.

Exposure –  It has been five years since the last Olympic Games, but some memories have vividly returned. Firstly, that what makes the Olympics so great is not only seeing inspirational performances, but hearing the inspirational, personal stories about athletes and teams. And secondly, just how much is going on at one time! The action-packed nature of the Olympics is certainly part of its charm, but it does also by nature mean that there is less time for sports to capture new audiences by telling the stories of the athletes and building anticipation for their events. While the negative impact of this for many sports is far outweighed by the added exposure they receive through the Games, the same may not apply to Paralympic events. By having Paralympic and Olympic events side-by-side, broadcasters and media (and the public in general) would have to make (even more) complex discussions about focusing on certain events, and with the existing viewership data, may lead many to disregard the highlights of the Paralympics in a way that would not be done with it being a standalone event.

Positioning – There are clearly similarities between the Olympics and Paralympics. Beyond their technical nature, they are also surely the two sports events that inspire and unite like no other, and that tell stories of their athletes to new audiences and provide a platform to captivate future generations of fans and competitors. With that said, they should not be confused as being the same. While both inspire, the Olympics does it through showcasing elite able-bodied performance, more akin to the sport that fills our TV screens 52 weeks a year – they show feats that the large majority of us simply cannot believe are possible. The Paralympics showcases elite para-sport, with added emphasis on resilience and enhancing the understanding of life for those with disabilities. The sporting entertainment is incredible, but there is an added social element which positions the Paralympics clearly uniquely. Both events make you say ‘wow’, but do so in different ways, and rather than showing the benefits of both, it’s also foreseeable that integrating the two events will nullify the unique shine that both currently have.

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Both the Olympics and Paralympics, despite their strengths, face something of an uncertain future. Both also have almost unrivalled potential and showing the spirit of togetherness now entrenched in the IOC’s motto, they can, and will, continue to be much more than just sports events. What side of the debate are you on -is it time to bring these two events ‘Together’?