International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons, pictured in a mask before the Covid-affected 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, believes the return of crowds in Paris will be a huge boost
International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons, pictured in a mask before the Covid-affected 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, believes the return of crowds in Paris will be a huge boost AFP

The Paris Paralympics are expected to give the movement the biggest boost since the mould-breaking 2012 London Games - and organisers hope they will help to move the rights of disabled people to the top of the list of global priorities.

International Paralympic Committee (IPC) president Andrew Parsons believes the Games, which follow the Olympics and open in 100 days' time on August 28, "will have a big impact on how people with disability are perceived around the world".

"This is one of the key expectations we have around Paris 2024; we believe that we need people with disability to be put back on the global agenda," Parsons told AFP in an interview.

He says disability has fallen behind issues such as gender identity in recent years.

"We do believe people with disability have been left behind. There is very little debate about persons with disability."

The Covid pandemic exacerbated the situation.

"In the pandemic, they were really affected. Some of the health systems, even in big nations, were put to the test and they have failed people with disability," Parsons said.

After the Covid-blighted 2020 Tokyo Paralympics and the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing that largely played out in empty venues, Paris represents a return to normality - and crowds.

"We'll have spectators back, and this is a huge difference from Tokyo and Beijing," Parsons, a Brazilian, said.

"There is a Paris effect, to be close to iconic landmarks, to have five-a-side football at the Eiffel Tower or taekwondo at the Grand Palais. The images that people will see around the world will be fantastic."

The IPC is confident the TV audience for Paris will surpass the 4.1 billion who watched the Tokyo Paralympics, helped by kinder times for viewers in Europe and the Americas.

While Parsons admits London 2012, with its full stadiums and global stars like Oscar Pistorius, "is still the benchmark for Paralympic sport", he is confident that the level of competition has increased in the 12 years since then.

"The sport that we have to show to the world is of a higher level, the movement has grown a lot," he said.

"We have more interest in Paralympic sport around the world," he maintains.

"When you see a sport like wheelchair basketball, they are playing faster now, the game is becoming more and more physical.

"With five-a-side football, it is not just Brazil and Argentina, you see other teams like Morocco that can surprise the big teams."

Paris organisers launched an advertising campaign on Monday to boost sluggish ticket sales for the event, with only 300,000 purchased by the public so far.

Another 600,000 have been taken by French public sector organisations and the Olympic and Paralympic committees, according to official figures.

Parsons though maintains the figures are "very close to where they were in London 2012 at this point".

"In London, 1.2 million tickets were sold in the final two months and in Rio we sold two million tickets in eight weeks, so we know that we will sell more tickets closer to the Olympics and during the Olympics," he said

The inspirational message of the Paralympics - that athletes with disability can also achieve remarkable things - is what sets it apart from the Olympics.

"We are a sporting movement, but we're also a movement for change. So the more people we can attract to the Paralympic movement, they will find the sport amazing but at the same time they are attending an event that aims to change perceptions," Parsons said.

"We want to change the world -- and you can only change the world if you change perceptions."

Just don't expect the Games to leave a lasting legacy on the Paris Metro system, which is notoriously inaccessible to wheelchair users.

"We do understand the frustration with the Metro," Parsons said. "We all wanted the Metro to be more accessible as a result of the Paralympics but we understand the issues around the Metro."

One major hindrance is a French law that if one station is modified to make it accessible to disabled users, then all the stations on the line must follow suit.

"In Rio in 2016, a few stations linked to the Games were made accessible, kind of like hubs. That cannot be done in Paris."

To partly compensate, a fleet of one thousand specially adapted taxis will be in operation, along with Paris' public buses, which descend to kerb level to allow wheelchair users to board easily.