the future of the olympics

Could Unifying the Olympics and Paralympics Reignite Interest in Hosting the Games?

Something needs to change if more cities are to consider bidding to host the Olympics. Could consolidating them into a truly unified Games with the Paralympics be the answer?

by Barney Cullum
Dec 15 2016, 3:37pm

Photo: USA Today

We know that Rio overspent in staging the Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer, but when the city's new mayor takes office next month we should learn by just how much.

It's looking ominous. Funds from bank accounts held by the organising committee have reportedly been seized this week, while 700 suppliers, five of Africa poorest countries, and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) all allegedly remain out of pocket and angry after being denied money owed to them.

Once the full picture emerges, Rio's citizens will be angry too. And other cities considering bidding for future games will find it even harder to justify than in the past.

Some 2016 partners think they know where planners erred in Brazil. Rio neither marketed, nor generated revenue out of, the Paralympic Games until the very last minute. "They only realised the full potential of the Paralympics when the event was underway," Xavier Gonzalez, the IPC's Chief Executive, said last month.

Nearly 70 per cent of all available tickets were ultimately sold for the September spectacle, a respectable showing compared to the 80-85 percent recorded for August's Olympic Games. Perhaps the figure could have been matched with greater promotion, but is it actually realistic to expect greater upfront costs to be found from public funds just before the action begins? Is it likely in the knowledge that most Olympics – let alone Paralympics – ultimately prove loss-making, unless and until international TV viewers decide to become tourists?

Although the Olympics and Paralympics have been hosted in the same cites since Barcelona in 1992, only ahead of the bidding for the 2012 Games did cities become formally obliged to stage both. Hosting an Olympics has always been a risk, but hosting an Olympics plus a modern, expensive Paralympics – where lower ticket prices create minimal revenue despite credible attendances – is a bigger one.

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

The number of cities who now consider the prize of hosting to be worth bidding for is getting smaller. 10 cities wanted to host the 2008 Games but only Paris, Los Angeles and Budapest want the Games in 2024. Of those, only Los Angeles and Paris look capable of delivering a profitable Games. They have the facilities in place having each hosted twice before. Something needs to change if more cities like Hamburg and even Rome, who both got cold feet for 2024, are to consider bidding again.

The change that is needed is for the Olympics and Paralympics to be consolidated into one unified Games. And despite what you may have heard before about it being too complicated and unwieldy, it can be done and it will be far from complicated when it finally is.

READ MORE: Is China's Paralympic Dominance Reflected in Their Support for Disabled People?

Let's begin by looking first at the status quo, then at what's achievable.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) want the number of athletes involved in the Olympics alone to be cut from the 11,000 seen at the 2016 Games to 10,500 from 2024 onwards. The IOC also say the number of medal events will be capped at 310 (there were 306 events at the 2016 Olympics).

Promotional images have been released for the Budapest bid // via

The Rio Paralympics featured less than half as many athletes (4,300), but an epic 526 medal events from just 23 sports (compared to the 42 sports in the Olympics). This equates to eight athletes present for every gold medal contested at the Paralympics. In contrast, there were 36 athletes running, jumping and throwing for every gold medal contested at the Olympics.

Admittedly, there is not much scope for change to be found from looking at the merits of the sports themselves. Boccia – a bowls like game – is the only Paralympic sport without an equivalent in the Olympics. Should it be cut? No. It is the most accessible of all sports in that it can be played by anyone, even individuals with multiple disabilities. The inclusive values of the Olympic and Paralympic movements dictate that boccia remains in a consolidated programme.

There are many sports that are in the Olympics but not the Paralympics. The majority of these are gymnastic and would be dangerous for most people who have been given a Paralympic classification. Also unique to the Olympics are combat sports such as boxing and taekwondo. Judo features in the Paralympics and is open to visually impaired athletes, but boxing and taekwondo are currently considered less accessible.

Paralympic judo at London 2012 // PA Images

Not everyone agrees. More controversial, however, is the effective banning of athletes with prosthetics from competing against those without. Currently, the athlete has to demonstrate he is not gaining an advantage, which has proved beyond the celebrated German blade jumper Markus Rehm (pictured above), who has famously leapt further than Greg Rutherford did to take gold in London.

The fairest way of creating space for athletes with the talent of Rehm in one unified Games can be found by looking again at the ratio of athletes per available gold medal in the Olympics (1:36) compared to the Paralympics (1:8). One to eight is a very useful ratio. There are eight lanes in a swimming pool, eight lanes around an athletics track and eight represents the number of quarter-finalists in knockout team or individual sports.

READ MORE: The Rio Games Were an Unjustifiable Human Disaster, and So Are the Olympics

Scrapping the heats in "lane sports" at the Olympics – and starting knockout competitions at the quarter-finals stage – would liberate venues to incorporate the 23 Paralympic sports into the standard 22-day programmes afforded to the Olympics.

With around six million people competing for just four million seats every session would be sold out. Mixing all sessions with a combination of Parasport and Olympic sport would mean all spectators would get to see favourites from both and all athletes would get exposure. A profitable business model would be established and bidding to host would swiftly become more attractive and competitive.

No sports would be sacrificed and no Paralympic classes would miss out. The 5,000 top Olympians and the 5,000 finest Paralympians would be showcased during each Olympiad. Perhaps then we would see genuine interest in hosting the Games once more – and avoid the financial losses seen in Rio.