Paralympics a force for change

The 2010 winter games get the credit for prompting public initiatives that help people with disabilities, according to almost 50 per cent of Canadians surveyed in a recent UBC Olympic Games Impact (OGI) study. The survey and study have been conducted under the auspices of the new UBC Centre for Sport and Sustainability.

“In the last decade Games organizing committees have also put together Paralympics Games and this model may have helped raise awareness surrounding disability issues,” says Prof. Rob VanWynsberghe, who leads the UBC OGI Project Group.

For the Sydney Australia Paralympic Games in 2000, the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee agreed to a set of shared principles and a further agreement in 2001 protected the organization of the Paralympic Games and secured the practice of “one bid, one city.”

The online survey of more than 1,600 Canadians was conducted in December 2009 to measure changes in public and personal awareness and attitudes since the Olympic/Paralympic Games were awarded to Vancouver/Whistler in 2003. The survey is part of the first-ever comprehensive OGI study which VANOC has commissioned to evaluate and compare various pre-and post-Games impacts.

Results showed 41-50 per cent of respondents felt the Games triggered additional accessibility of buildings, sidewalks and public spaces as well as specialized programs and training for athletes with disabilities and government support for disabled individuals.

Also, 32-40 per cent of respondents believed both the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games increased their knowledge of sports for people with disabilities and their overall acceptance of people with disabilities. Among employers, about one-quarter said their willingness to hire people with disabilities has gone up due to the Games.

“This is very positive because employment rates among people with disabilities are much lower than among the general population, and attitudes of employers constitute a major barrier to employment of people with disabilities,” says Lyn Jongbloed, associate professor of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Not involved in the OGI research, she comments from her perspective as a therapist who has worked with spinal cord injury and stroke patients and as a researcher interested in the interrelationship between disability and the social, economic and political environment.

The OGI survey found B.C. residents were the least likely to report that the Games had positive personal or public impacts, which researchers attribute to higher levels of opposition to the Games within B.C. compared to the rest of Canada.

“Despite the lower response in B.C., we know from other Games that as the competition draws nearer, people’s attitudes get more positive as they decide to ‘put their best face forward,’” says VanWynsberghe, a sociologist with a focus on sustainability research and a member of the School of Human Kinetics and Dept. of Educational Studies in the Faculty of Education.

The eight-person OGI Project Group includes undergraduates, graduates, post-doctoral fellows and staff in disciplines ranging from Fine Arts to Forestry. It is measuring the impact of Olympic and Paralympic Games over time through a consistent and comparable reporting system. Olympic organizing committees around the world are now required to work with independent research organizations to conduct OGI studies.

Results from the pre-Games research will be compared to post-Games data, and VanWynsberghe estimates the last OGI report will be finalized by December 2010. The research team will make recommendations to VANOC based on their findings, and team members hopes future organizing committees will incorporate the results into criteria used to select host cities.

“Now that we know it’s possible to measure sustainability for such large events, we want to create a sustainability index for future host countries and sustainability standards for all future Olympic and Paralympic Games,” says VanWynsberghe.

Social, environmental and economic pre-Games impacts were reported in December 2009 and highlights can be found at

The UBC Centre for Sports and Sustainability is a legacy project of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Building on UBC’s research expertise in sustainability, social development and health, the centre will study the opportunities and impacts of sport and mega sporting events. For more information, visit:

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