Has the Time Come for the Olympics and Paralympics to Merge?

Athletes are asking if it's time for the Olympics and Paralympics to merge. We spoke to competitors on both sides to gauge their feeling on the debate.

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04 June 2016, 10:32pm

Rainer Jensen/EPA

Those who follow the Paralympic Games know it's a treasure to look forward to, rich with the most compelling, confounding stories you could hope to bear witness to. But are disabled athletes outgrowing their own competition ­­– and how many more editions can we expect to see beyond Brazil?

Later this month the IAAF will rule on whether Markus Rehm, an amputee with a prosthetic leg, can compete in the long jump competition at this summer's Rio Olympics. The German "blade-jumper" believes new evidence will convince world athletics' governing body that he is not gaining an advantage by springing from a prosthesis.

Ahead of an expected final judgment on June 17, British record-holding Paralympian and anthropologist Ryan Raghoo has called for an end to "segregating" competitors into different Games. A long-jumper himself, Raghoo recently broke the national record for athletes with his health classification after switching his focus away from sprint events.

He is sceptical about Rehm's claims that a bionic leg does not produce an unfair advantage, but supports the view that a bigger stage than the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes to perform on in justified. It is well known that the performance gap between disabled and non-disabled athletes is shrinking all the time, bolstering the sporting argument for closer integration.

Raghoo makes a point rarely covered in the media, though, pointing out that there are also professional and ethical grounds. He does not enjoy the same profile as British record holders in Olympic sports, and as a result has to fit no fewer than four jobs around his training and studies to fund his equipment, coaching and travel on the road to Rio.

His "dream" is for the perceived need for separate Games for disabled athletes to be re-examined in the future. "If I was an able-bodied athlete who had jumped a record distance, I would be turning down sponsorship offers, not asking for them," he says.

Ryan Raghoo at a recent Evelina Children's Hospital event // via @t36ryan

A north Londoner of Guyanese and Indian heritage, Raghoo champions equal opportunities for disabled people in all areas of society. The 20-year-old hopes September's Paralympic Games will, like London 2012, bring a spotlight to disability rights more generally.

Raghoo, who overcame doctors' prognoses that he would never walk after surviving a complicated birth, is already giving presentations to schools up and down the UK to challenge perceptions of what disabled athletes are achieving and to raise their standing.

He puts pictures of David Weir and Ellie Simmonds up in classrooms and asks children to raise their hands if they know who the multi-medallists are.

The response is disappointing.

"Other people say they are household names, but they are not," he told VICE Sports. "People can win multiple Paralympic gold medals and not even be known in their own country, let alone be international superstars. I don't see why there should be any difference because you've got a disability; that's segregation. I get a lot of stick for this, but when I present myself, I present myself as an Olympian. I don't describe myself as a Paralympian."

Weir, the British wheelchair-racing star of London 2012, has also called for greater visibility of disabled athletes in mainstream competitions in the past, and Raghoo will take up the baton when the 36-year-old retires.

Weir celebrates after winning gold in the men's Marathon T54 during 2012 Paralympics // Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Following pressure exerted by Weir, this July the London Anniversary Games will incorporate para-sport events for the first time. National Paralympic Day last year was marked by empty seats at the Olympic Stadium, disillusionment and stubborn rain. It was a damp squib if ever there was one.

"We all remember how special 2012 was and, as Paralympic athletes, we never felt left out," reflected Weir in the drizzle. "Just take any Seb Coe speech – every time he talked of the Games he talked about the Olympics and Paralympics as one. We need to get back to that. We need to be in Diamond League races, we need to be in people's faces."

Weir will get his wish at the London Anniversary Games this summer, but the Olympics remains the Holy Grail. Look back at the awesome nature of his 2012 triumphs: success came in distances ranging from 800m – two laps of a track – right through to the marathon. Some question whether even the Paralympic Games stage of 2012, with its packed stadia, was big enough to do justice to the performance. Yes there were packed crowds, but British TV audiences for the Paralympics were small compared to the Olympics. Outside of the UK, they were tiny.

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Next year's Commonwealth Games will hugely expand the para-sport programme for what is already a fully integrated event. Gold Coast 2018 will host up to 300 para-athletes and 38 medal events across seven sports. The expansion could prove a template for the Olympics.

There is public backing for this. In February, a ComRes survey with the disability charity Leonard Cheshire recorded results of almost two to one in favour of integrating events for Paralympians into the Olympics Games and similar competitions.

It won't happen overnight. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) have an agreement in place for parallel but separate competitions that will run through Tokyo 2020.

But it could happen beyond that.

This writer expects Markus Rehm's place in the Olympics will be confirmed within the fortnight. A debate that lost momentum following the self-destruction of Oscar Pistorius, the first crossover flag bearer, will be reignited.

"Blade Jumper" Markus Rehm in action // Sven Hoppe/EPA

Rehm feels it would "be an amazing chance to show what Paralympic athletes are able to achieve." You could argue this has been demonstrated sufficiently by now. It is only a matter of time before Ellie Simmonds, four foot tall and with "limiting" disabilities restricting her limbs, breaks the three minute barrier for swimming 200 metres.

VICE Sports caught up with swimmers heading to Rio for the Olympics at the European Swimming Championships last month to gauge whether they would object to sharing a stage with Paralympians, amid the latest reports of low ticket sales for the Rio Paralympics.

"The British Paralympic team are probably going to win just as many medals as the Olympic team this year, so for them to potentially perform in front of les spectators, with less home support, does seem unfair," said Molly Renshaw, Team GB's 100 and 200 metre breaststroke hopeful. "Some of the ParalympicsGB swimming team are very close to the top 10 of non-disabled swimmers."

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A coach of the Netherlands team said he would oppose reform, however, claiming "Paralympic swimming in Holland is not as professional as that done by normal athletes". It can be hoped that use of the word "normal" in this context primarily reflected a language barrier, but there is certainly considerable opposition in some quarters.

Swiss 50 metre freestyler Erik van Dooren said the merging of the two Games would be inappropriate because para-sport is "not as exciting", and "not as competitive".

27-year-old Rehm – who has already jumped further than Greg Rutherford did when winning gold on Super Saturday at London 2012 – explodes this theory. Should he perform the longest jump at the Olympics in August, it could also represent one of the longest leaps yet in the diversity movement.

It is for the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee to review the status quo. But the case for the Olympic Games to follow the Commonwealth Games and the London Anniversary Games in involving far more Paralympians is set to accelerate on to the home straight.

@bdocullum