Paralympics countdown: ‘We want to positively influence lives of 1.2bn people’

<span>The mascot for the Paralympic Games at the Eiffel Tower.</span><span>Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images</span>
The mascot for the Paralympic Games at the Eiffel Tower.Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

With 100 days to go until the Paralympic Games begin in Paris, Andrew Parsons has a job to do. The 47-year-old Brazilian is the president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). But these Games matter, as a moment for disability sport and the movement that lies behind it, and the pressure is on.

“This is the first edition of the summer Games where we will be able to explore our full potential,” he says. “We had London, which is still regarded as the benchmark, and then we had Rio, which was a tough games for us to put together. Then it was Tokyo and the pandemic.

“We do believe that the Paris Games will provide the platform for the movement to really [reach] our full potential.”

Related: Zip-up sneakers and magnetic fasteners: Australia’s Paralympic Games kit revealed

The most important step towards achieving Parsons’s goal for the Games is getting people to see them. The IPC has agreed broadcast deals with a record number of countries – more than 160 – but selling tickets has proved a tougher challenge.

According to Le Monde, less than 900,000 tickets out of a total of 2.8m had been sold by March, with most of those acquired by the government or local authorities for distribution. While ticket sales for the Paralympics traditionally run late, with fans often buying on the back of watching the Olympics, Parsons says efforts need to be redoubled to persuade people to come.

“In London we sold more than 1.3m tickets in the final three months, in Rio we sold 2m in eight weeks, so this helps us to control our anxiety but at the same time we need to strengthen our efforts when it comes to the promotion,” Parsons says.

“In terms of awareness now is the moment to create this call to action to really make people purchase the tickets. I think the Parisians are aware, what we need now is probably to be more concrete. I can be interested in the Paralympic  Games but when I buy a ticket I need to buy a ticket for a sport, to buy a ticket to wheelchair fencing or track cycling. Now we need to be  specific.”

Parsons says he wants the venues packed, the better to show off what he believes will be a new benchmark for performance. “Having spectators back is a huge thing for us, with the different atmosphere it brings and what people will see around the world. The sport people will be able to see will be at its highest level, compared to London or even Tokyo.

“We have some new countries, new players, new athletes. There will be countries now competing at a high level who have never been able to do that before. The Paralympics are becoming more universal and what I would like to see on the field of play is spectacular sport in spectacular venues, so that when people watch it they know it means more than just gold, silver and bronze.”

That final sentence is critical and what makes Parsons’s job different from that of, say the International Olympic Committee’s Thomas Bach. The IPC has external political issues to deal with like any other governing body. Russian and Belarusian athletes will compete under a neutral flag in Paris, while Israel and Palestine remain free to compete. But the IPC is also a political actor, with the Paralympic movement having become perhaps the most prominent global voice for disability rights and the Games the one singular moment when people outside the movement are paying attention.

“We’re talking about the 4,400 athletes living in the village, but we also want to be able to influence positively the lives of 1.2bn people with disability,” Parsons says. “We have the feeling that persons with disability have been forgotten in some of these international debates. If you see some other movements, and we applaud them all, [those related to] gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation have moved a lot, while the persons with disability have been left behind.

Related: British Paralympian urges Nike to introduce single trainer sales

“The pandemic has shown us, if you see the number of persons with disability and the kind of health assistance that was provided to them even in very developed countries, the policies that were designed to be very inclusive were not,” says Parsons, who does not have a disability. “Sometimes you don’t see persons with disability in those top discussions [and this is] fundamental to design the policies that will lead to real inclusion.

“I believe we have the best platform to help change that because, if you think on sport, politics, culture, whatever, the Paralympic Games is the only event of global impact that puts persons with disabilities centre stage. That’s why we understand the responsibility we have.

“In September, the United Nations will host its summit for the future to look again at its sustainability goals. e have the Paralympic Games as a platform one month prior to it. It’s a very good opportunity that we don’t want to waste.”