Paralympic promises will be as empty as the stadiums

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 September, 2008, 12:00am

With the same sort of seamless organisation that has so impressed the watching world over the past month, the Olympic banners and bunting lining Beijing's streets have been replaced almost overnight by those of the Paralympics. But, whether many people will be watching when the Games start on Saturday is debatable. So far, despite their low cost, less than a third of the 1.66 million tickets for the Paralympics have been sold.

Given the almost invisible profile of the disabled on the mainland, that is not a surprise. Nor do the authorities seem too concerned about the prospect of empty seats; there were plenty of them at the Olympics themselves. The saddest thing about the Games was the way ordinary Beijingers gathered outside the fences that separated them from the Olympic Green just to be close to the action, while inside the stadiums there were gaping gaps in the crowds because corporate ticket holders hadn't bothered to turn up.

London's irreverent mayor, Boris Johnson, has vowed that won't happen at the 2012 Olympics. Thousands of schoolchildren will be on standby to fill any empty seats and corporate ticket holders will be required to RSVP, or to hand in their tickets if they leave early so they can be sold to other people. It's a scheme used successfully at Wimbledon and is one that could have been employed at the Beijing Games.

Mr Johnson unveiled these plans while he was in Beijing for the Olympics closing ceremony. They were not reported in the mainland media though. More tightly gagged than ever during the Olympics, the press were under strict instructions to report nothing negative. They certainly weren't allowed to suggest that the sight of the world's top athletes performing in half-empty stadiums was an anomaly.

Instead, newspapers preferred to tick Mr Johnson off over the fact that he accepted the Olympic flag with his suit jacket unbuttoned. For some commentators, this was a mark of disrespect towards China and the Olympics. The criticism was telling, because of the way it reflected the obsession with appearance that marked the Beijing Olympic experience.

The sight of thousands of performers drilled to within an inch of their lives at the opening and closing ceremonies mesmerised mainlanders. But, for many overseas watchers, it was reminiscent of the rigidly choreographed annual Mass Games held in North Korea. It was as if the Beijing organisers were concerned only with putting on a bigger and better show than anyone else.

In that, they succeeded. But the Beijing Olympics were supposed to be more than just an awesome spectacle, where everything from the weather to the traffic was manipulated. According to the International Olympic Committee, they would spur the mainland into becoming more open and less of a police state. Similarly, hosting the Paralympics would be an opportunity to challenge the deep-rooted prejudice against the mainland's disabled. Until relatively recently, they were still referred to as can fei, or deficient and useless.

Now, though, it seems likely that the Paralympics will also be no more than an extravagant showcase. There have been no announcements of new measures to combat the discrimination faced by an estimated 83 million disabled mainland citizens, nor of improvements in health care for them. All that seems to have happened is that Beijing has finally made its subway stops and major tourist sights accessible to wheelchair users.

This emphasis on spectacle over substance has served to distance ordinary people from both the Olympics and Paralympics. Seven long years of anticipation and hype culminated in an event that left many Beijingers feeling that a party was being held in their house, only they hadn't been invited. For the 6 per cent of the mainland population who have some sort of disability, the Paralympics will be as meaningless and empty as the venues the athletes will be competing in.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist