I was surprised that it would take me several weeks to talk about my Rio 2016 visit. When I returned from Rio I had a plethora of feelings that took me several weeks to resolve, and effectively identify my key experiences at Rio 2016. My goals, as I'd identified them before leaving for Rio, were first, to reach out and share my access expertise with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), second, visit with the Russian IPC leader I had worked with in Sochi and, lastly, experience the Rio 2016 Olympic/ Paralympic Park to see if in fact an accessible environment had been realized. I was determined to be critical.
With all these goals in tow, I'll be the first to admit that I felt uneasy about departing for Rio de Janeiro on September 3, 2016 as a media representative accredited by the United States Olympic Committee to cover the Rio 2016 Paralympics. I wondered how the Paralympians would fare, as well as this reporter! So, after finally touching down in Rio on the morning of September 4th I prepared myself to further understand the city which would be my home base for the next two weeks.
Exploring Rio on my own was an immersive learning experience. Cabs were costly, and the roads were constantly jammed with traffic, which meant that getting from one venue to the next was time consuming as well. Experiencing the new Rio Metro line, just completed for the Games, was very positive. Even better, the Rio Metro was designed with persons with disabilities in mind and had wayfinding integrated in the transit system design. Rio Metro representatives shared that they had many meetings with individuals who had physical limitations, and other city representatives who wanted a simple, easy to understand, and intuitive transportation system that would accommodate citizens from around the world.
Rio de Janeiro may never have shone as brightly as it did for the Opening Ceremony. The Maracanã was packed with Brazil's citizens who cheered and applauded throughout the night. The Brazilian music had everyone swaying and dancing in their seats throughout the ceremony.
What especially moved me was the extensive participation of countries that had only minimal participation in the four previous Olympic/Paralympic events I have attended. The large numbers of para-athletes participating in each country's events told the story that being disabled in a third world country was less a stigma; more an honor. This acceptance pointed to a mainstreaming and acceptance of Paralympic athletes. Further, I learned that there were funds to train para-athletes for these events. An independent sponsored IPC had para-athletes from Syria and Palestine. It was wonderful to see participants from Georgia, Malawi, Seychelles and three countries in the Congo region. Along with these relative "newcomers" were the traditional powerhouses, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, China, and Japan. I was overjoyed to see many women participate from Muslim countries. This kind of support for female Paralympic athletes speaks strongly to the notion of women's rights around the world.
At the Games themselves, from wheelchair tennis to wheelchair basketball, I experienced sheer amazement and excitement at the agility and ability of the para-athletes as each one moved gracefully and with strength - every point well earned! As the German women's wheelchair basketball team shot basket after basket, I was taken with their movement as if they were ballerinas on stage. Such beauty to behold! The Spanish tennis player was thrilling to watch as he spun around the court. Support staff had to rush to his side to wipe his brow. His movements were thrilling to experience as he went on to win the match. Throughout the Games the Brazilians' enthusiasm was contagious and their passion for competition, and for all athletes, was heartwarming. The Brazilian Government made funds available to families so that they might attend what may be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The kissing game projected onto a huge screen drew applause as a camera focused on a couple, young or old, which prompted them to kiss the individual sitting next to them. (Choose your seat mate carefully!!)The audience's exuberant cheers catapulted me to laughter, and the energy was nonpareil.
I made lasting connections with contacts new and old during the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and, most importantly, I pursued a long-held and desired goal of being asked to participate - regarding accessibility and Universal Design - with the IPC, which is responsible for the management and governance of ten Paralympic sports. Hopefully I will be included in the IPC code committee.
President Obama's last speech to the United Nations as President - on the day following the Closing Ceremony, spoke volumes to me, and my experience at Rio 2016. Obama's words resounded and inspired when he said:
"We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or...retreat into a world sharply divided..." "In remote corners of the world, citizens are demanding respect for the dignity of all people no matter their gender, or race, or religion, or disability..."
At the outset of this article I spoke about my difficulty in reconciling my experience at Rio 2016. I credit our President with finding words that I perhaps did not, but I can say with great confidence, that I saw a great "model of cooperation and integration" throughout my stay in Rio, and, most importantly, evidenced by the camaraderie of the para-athletes. What the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games meant to me was a city that welcomed me with open arms, a city ready to "go forward..."
Back at home in my garden in San Francisco: a brief respite, a busy and growing office to tend to, and much anticipation for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games where I'll report from next.