In the final of three Q & As from keynote speakers at the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, Craig Spence explains the push to get more women’s Paralympic medallists and why, in a Covid-ravaged world, we need the Games more than ever.

Crossing fingers that they go ahead, the Tokyo Paralympics will have more women competitors than ever before, say Craig Spence from the International Paralympic Committee’s headquarters in the German city of Bonn.

Spence, the IPC’s chief marketing and communications officer, was previously at the UK’s Rugby Football League, and admits he knew very little about the Paralympics when he joined them a decade ago. But he was excited by the chance to work in sport and make a difference to the world – and that’s never been more important, he says. 

While he doesn’t like the word ‘confident’, Spence is encouraged the Paralympics will go ahead in 2021: “We are going to be the beacon of light at the end of this horrible pandemic.”


SM: The IPC is working towards gender equity at the Paralympic Games. How close will you come to an equal number of female and male athletes in Tokyo 2021?

CS: Gender parity isn’t as easy as just flicking a switch, and saying we’re going to have 50:50. We need the national Paralympic committees and sporting federations to produce the talent pool. There simply aren’t enough women to fill the places yet, and it’s about maintaining the quality of the competition.

We’ve set a strategy to gradually increase it. In Barcelona 1992 we had 699 women; Tokyo will have around 1750. We will already be up 17 percent on London 2012. We need to convince national Paralympic committees that gender equity is the way to go. There are some very advanced countries on this – like New Zealand – but then you have challenges in some Asian and African countries where they only have two athletes and they’re both men. We don’t want to implement quota places, where it feels like people are there just because of the rule book.

There’s a great quote from Cheri Blauwet, the US wheelchair racer who is now a doctor at Harvard and won gold at the 2004 Athens Games. She said “I could never truly call myself the best in the world. This is simply because the majority of women with disabilities have never yet had the chance to compete.”

SM: So how close are you to achieving parity?

CS: We were looking to have gender parity in medal events at the 2022 Beijing Winter Paralympics, which would have been the first time. But we’ve had to change it a little because in certain snowboard events we just don’t have enough women competing at World Cup level. So we’re at 53 percent men, 47 percent women – we’re getting closer.

SM: Oceania is leading the world in having female leadership in their Paralympic organisations. How do you get more women into leadership roles around the world?

CS: You have to change the mentality of the Paralympic movement to realise that gender parity is the way to go, and that can only be achieved if you have more women in leadership in the national Paralympic committees. We’ve done a lot of work in recent years to see how we can increase the number of female leaders, and how we can mentor female leaders coming through. You’ve got Fiona Allen leading Paralympics NZ, and female secretary-generals in Australia, Fiji, Kiribati and Vanuatu.  We’ve still got work to do ourselves in terms of bringing through the female leaders in our own company.

SM: How confident are you that the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games will go ahead?

CS: I’m greatly encouraged by what’s happening around the world. In New Zealand and Australia, sport is coming back again. And in Europe, the Champions League came to a climax with all the teams going to Portugal to play. Of course there’s a difference between a football tournament of eight teams, and a Paralympics where we’re calling on 4300 athletes to compete.

We know more about coronavirus, and how we can protect people from the virus. We’re learning from other sports events, like the US and French Opens. We believe it’s going to be a very special Games, and a very emotional Games.

I think the Paralympics are needed next year more than ever. During this crisis, some countries have reverted to type, and undone some of the great work done in recent years. From a disability point of view we have been really alarmed that some governments have said ‘if you have a disability you’re at the back of the queue for medical treatment should you catch coronavirus’. We have to continue the great work we’ve been doing since we were formed.

SM: The Rio Paralympics drew a TV audience for 4.1 billion, and 79 percent of Brazilians said it changed their attitudes towards disability. Do you expect the same kind of response from Tokyo?

CS: Tokyo will be the games that delivers more change than any other sporting event in history. The TV audience will build to 4.25 billion, and the Games will be televised in more countries than ever before. I’m so excited because the sport is going to be spectacular. You see someone with no legs run 100m in 10.5 seconds, and you can’t help but change your attitude to disability.

We are also going to launch the biggest communications campaign in Paralympics history. It isn’t about sport – it’s about human rights and how we can use the Paralympic Games as a vehicle to drive the human rights agenda. So many violations are going on around the world against people with disabilities, 1 billion people – 15 percent of the world’s population – face discrimination every day.  We have to change the mindsets of the world, and the easiest way to do that is through sport.

* Craig Spence will speak on value and visibility on the final day of the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit, delivered by Women in Sport Aotearoa and the Shift Foundation. 

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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