Transcript of Equal Too Episode 1: The Change We Made

[Music: ‘Rising Phoenix’ with heavy base beat. We can hear a male vocalist, georgetragic, rap the lyrics]

There’s a young boy 

Walking through obstacles 

Cut up from all the surgeries 

Prosthetic picture perjury

Telling me, I’m normal 

But normal, they never really made me seem

They always painted me

Discriminated but levitated …

[Music fades under speaking]

Michael Johnson: I think the Paralympic Games can– and Paralympic athletes can show the potential for people with disabilities, just how incredible they can be and what they can do

[Clip 1: Oscar Pistorius vs Jonnie Peacock]

Commentator: And Peacock gets a good one, he’s ahead of Pistorius the crowds starting to go with him, Peacock’s in front. Pistorius starting to recover but it’s gonna be Peacock. Peacock takes the gold for Great Britain! Richard Browne takes the silver for the United States…

[Clip ends]

Tanni Grey-Thompson: I remember going into the Paralympic athletics day one morning session and walking out and just going “Oh my God, this is amazing.”

[Clip 2: Bebe wins gold]

Commentator: And there it is. The coach jumps to his feet. Vio’s celebrations are just incredible, as incredible as that performance. The 19-year-old from Venice, Italy, just doesn’t know what to do with herself. 

[Clip ends]

[Music comes back in with sung chorus (Performed by Toni Hickman)]

I’m a rising phoenix

I’ll rise above you 

I’m a rising phoenix

I’ll rise above you

[Music fades out under narration]

Sophie (narration): The Rising Phoenix project began when the documentary Rising Phoenix was released on Netflix in August of 2020. This was the date the Paralympics were originally due to start.

The documentary tells the history of the Paralympic Games, which has grown to become one of the world’s largest sporting events. 

[Clip 3: David Weir]

Commentator: David Weir’s now taken the lead, he’s trying to come on the outside but David Weir’s done it again! We have been graced by greatness tonight!

[Clip ends]

Sophie (narration): It was one of the most popular films released on Netflix in its opening weekend and it triggered an incredible discussion about disability, all around the world.

Paralympic sport is a catalyst for change: it challenges how we perceive disabled people and provides a global stage to build a community. But what happens after the Games – when athletes return home?

To truly create an accessible and equitable world, a place where everyone feels safe and is encouraged to be themselves, we have work to do. We have to change the law, transform culture, rebuild our cities, increase visibility and to do so, we must empower everyone to be involved.

Over the next five episodes, you are going to hear from activists and policymakers, athletes and allies from around the world as we listen to what they think of where this movement, and where the story of this movement, needs to go next.

Sophie (narration): I’m Sophie Morgan, this is “Equal Too”, episode one – The Change We Made

[Music: Solo piano from Rising Phoenix theme]

Sophie (narration): If you want to follow the Equal Too story and join the conversation, #EqualToo, go to our website where you will also find the transcript and video versions of the podcast, along with subtitles and a BSL signed version in the coming days. 

[Music ends]

The Paralympics is a phenomenal sporting event. It has the power to change lives. As a wheelchair user myself for example, the 2012 Games in London opened the door to me becoming one of the first female disabled television hosts in the world. The Games showcase disabled athletes at an elite level, and allow spectators to see what disabled sportspeople can achieve.

But the rise of the Paralympic Games has not been straightforward.

Some Games have been incredible…

[Clip 4:  2012]

Commentator: So finally the sun was setting on London’s glorious summer of sport. But they were going to go out with a bang.

Man: We’ve all be touched by the triumphs and drama of the Paralympics

[Clip fades out]

Sophie (narration):  Some, not so good. 

[Clip 5: news report]

Newsreader: Rio 2016 Paralympic Games are getting underway, for many of the athletes involved though, the road to Rio has involved more than just hard work and determination. Questions have again been raised over whether the host city is ready.

[Clip ends]

Sophie (narration): It’s an extraordinary story. With many twists and turns. 

And it all began with a vision from one man, the founder of the Games, Sir Ludwig Guttmann.

[Clip 6: Sir Ludwig Guttmann archive ]

Archive narrator: He’s the doctor who has forced paralysed people to walk, laugh, argue, earn wages, run up debts.

[Clip ends] 

Sophie (narration): So how did the Games evolve from Guttmann’s archery competition to the event we now know? Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson is one of the most celebrated Paralympians and politicians in the UK. I asked her to give me a quick overview of the progression of the Paralympics.

[Clip 7: Tanni Grey wins]

Commentator: Tanni Grey-Thompson of Great Britain, the reigning Paralympic champion and world record holder is going to win the event 3 years in a row – or 3 Paralympics in a row. Galli from the United States second…

[Clip fades out]

Tanni: So in the first games in Rome in 1960, kind of sat alongside the Olympics and then there were Games that then happened in the same country, but not in the same city. And then, you know, what should have been the 1980 Games in Moscow, the government said they didn’t have any disabled people, so the Paralympics went to Arnhem. And then it was kind of quite interesting. So, you know, ’84 the Games split, so the wheelchair users went to Stoke Mandeville and everyone else went to New York because L.A., that was meant to host the Paralympics, then decided not to. So ’88, which, you know, I don’t think– you know, I was sort of right on the edges of sort of the politics of sport then, was a massive step forward, because even in Korea, you know, there’s a lot of discrimination against disabled people.

[Clip 8: Commentary in Korean from the closing ceremony of the Games, plus traditional music played at the ceremony. Fades out under narration]

Tanni: So my first games was Seoul in ’88, and it was interesting, it was the first time that we’d had a Paralympics that sat alongside the Olympics. We had the same kit, although not the same amount of kit as the Olympians. And it felt like it was a massive step forward and a real turning point, which was quite exciting.

[Clip 9: Dramatic orchestra music from the Barcelona opening ceremony plays under narration] 

Sophie (narration): The 1992 Barcelona Games, took the baton from Seoul and they created a dramatic shift in how the Games were produced and how they were communicated. Many say the beginnings of the modern Paralympic Games were born in Barcelona.

[Music builds to triumphant movie-score style. Fade out slowly under Tanni]

Tanni: It felt like it was a massive step forward in terms of the Games and where it was going to sit alongside the Olympics. We had really big crowds at the Paralympics. 

And I think one of the sad things is people sort of forget Barcelona and what a sort of a watershed moment it was, because then Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, you know, there weren’t massive crowds. But, actually for Barcelona, there was a really, really good atmosphere in the city and around Olympic Park. You know, the swimming pool was packed. Athletics was really full in the evening sessions. And that was a quite exciting sort of step forward again.

Sophie (narration): Those crowds helped propel Tanni to a massive five medal performance that summer in Spain. But long before Tanni had touched down in Barcelona, countless hours of planning and preparation had gone into ensuring that the event would be ready for the world stage. The International Paralympic Committee, or IPC, has been in charge of ensuring the successful delivery and organisation of the Paralympic Games since it was founded in 1989.

Xavi Gonzalez of Spain was CEO at the IPC from 2004 until he retired in 2019. He was a pivotal figure in the Barcelona Games. Xavi tells me about what happened.

Xavi: When I was called to see if I was interested in joining the Paralympic Games, my reaction was para-what? One thing that we did in Barcelona, and that really was the foundation of the success is that we, from the beginning, treated the athletes and treated the event as an event. And we didn’t really look into, so much, the disability. We needed to organise a very good event. It needed to be similar to the Olympics, as much as we could. And we knew that the athletes were going to come. The athletes will require that level of sophistication and preparation.

[Clip 10: Beijing opening ceremony. Crowds cheering and commentary in Chinese. Fades out under narration]

Sophie (V.O): Then the Games went to China for the first time and the Beijing Games in 2008 was yet another milestone for the event, impacting the lives of China’s 83 million disabled people for the better. Before the Games the country was comparatively inaccessible but as Xavi remembers, that soon changed.

Xavi: I think when the real change happened or became visible, that’s probably more fair to say, it became visible when the president of China, I think it was Hu Jintao at the time, declared that the Olympics and the Paralympics are going to be Games of equal splendour. 

Sophie (narration): And this time, The Games even managed to change the law. Just weeks before the Paralympics began in Beijing, the revised ‘Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of People with a Disability’ came into force to protect the rights of disabled people. 

The law meant that the state and society had to improve accessible facilities and promote accessible information. 

History was made.

[Clip 11: Traditional singing at Beijing opening ceremony. A soloist leads with a sweeping choir in the back. Fades out under narration. ]

Sophie (narration): I guess that, in a nutshell, is the power of sport, the power of the Paralympic Games – not just to move us, but to change us.

The movement was growing, and then, in 2012, the Games arrived in London.

[Clip 12: Announcement of 2012 Games]

Man: The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing that the Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of London [a crowd cheers]

[Clip fades out]

Tanni: I remember going into the Paralympic athletics day one morning session, and walking out and just going “Oh my God, this is amazing”.

Sophie (narration): Investment in the Games was key to their success. But this investment wasn’t just to improve infrastructure and access, but to amplify and ignite conversations too. For the London 2012 Games, one stakeholder who rose to the challenge was the UK’s most progressive and, some might say, disruptive broadcaster, Channel 4.

Dan Brooke: For any of us, I think that were lucky enough to be involved in London 2012 and then afterwards in Rio 2016 and just to be involved with the Paralympic movement, it’s been just the best thing that’s happened in our working lives.

[Clip 13: Superhumans. Music begins with a drumroll for the upbeat swing song ‘Yes I Can’ from the Rio 2016 Paralympics marketing campaign. Fades under speaking]

[Lyrics heard]

Yes, I can, suddenly 

Yes, I can

“Gee, I’m afraid to go on”

Has turned into, “Yes, I can”

Take a look, what do you see?

[Music fades under Sophie narration but continues quietly] 

Sophie narration: That was Dan Brooke, who was the chief marketing and communications officer of Channel 4 at the time of the 2012 Games. TV coverage of the Paralympics had always been done by the world renowned BBC who also broadcast the Olympics. But spotting an opportunity to give the Paralympics its own stage and to centre the narratives of the athletes themselves, Channel 4 won the television rights to broadcast for the Paralympics.

Dan: And that was an incredibly brave decision because saying “no” to the BBC is like saying no to the Queen. Right?

Sophie (narration): Channel 4 sought to do something nobody had ever achieved before in the history of the Paralympics – to present it to the world on a stage as big as and equal to the Olympics. That was exactly what founder Ludwig Guttmann had always wanted, which is why he named the Games the Para-Olympics, which means ‘parallel’, or ‘equal to’.

Channel 4 were finally going to realise Guttmann’s dream. Dan and his team came up with a revolutionary idea.

Dan: We were talking and saying to ourselves that the portrayal of people with disabilities in popular culture, the biggest thing that we could think of where disability was portrayed in a positive way was the X-Men, you know, probably should be called the X-Men and the X-Women. Their disability is at the centre of what their superpower is. That was the basis for “Superhumans”. 

[Clip 14: Coach encourages team. Energetic music.]

Coach: Come on guys, back to the baseline. It’s too slow.

[Clip fades under speaking]

Dan: And then on top of that, we wanted to give Paralympians the Hollywood treatment, the Nike treatment, in a way that we felt they’d never been given before. So, you know, in the Superhumans advert, there’s amazing production values. And we spent a lot of money making sure that athletes looked amazing.

[Clip fades up]

Coach: Not good enough. Your body should be on that line.

[Fades under speaking]

Dan: If you’re a Paralympian, your disability is an integral part of your identity, and indeed of your presence at the Games. So we don’t want to shy away from that in a way that we felt perhaps before people had. So stumps and scars and other aspects of disability are presented very proudly in the advert.

There’s this handover period of two and a half weeks between the Olympics ending and the Paralympics beginning. And that was where marketing got crammed. And we decided, no, we want to get this on people’s agenda, on their radar right from the start, before the Olympics even begin. So when the Olympics ends, people are already prepared for the fact that there’s a second party that’s about to occur. And that was– that was really successful. 

[Clip fades out entirely]

Dan: The other thing that we did, which I loved was, as the Olympics were ending, all these massive billboards went up all over the country with the Paralympics logo on it and the Channel 4 logo on it. And it simply said, “Thanks for the warm up”. 

Sophie (narration): Channel 4 broke the mould and turned the Games into an event that was watched, and loved, by millions of people. British athletes like Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds and David Weir became household names across the UK. 

[Clip 15: Ellie Simmonds wins gold]

Commentator: She did it four years ago in Beijing. Is she going to do it in London 2012? It’s surely another gold, a great great gold for Ellie Simmonds, in a new world record time of 5.19.17

[Clip fades under narration]

Sophie (V.O): And the 2012 Paralympics was also successful in shifting short-term perceptions on disability with over half of people asked stating their view of disability had changed, for the better.

[Clip fades out entirely]

Dan says that one of the really important components of this success was the backing of the Games by commercial sponsors, including one of the UK’s largest supermarkets, Sainsbury’s.

Dan: Change occurs in two different ways. There’s a change that occurs to the Games and the way that the Games is held and put on by successive cities. Because, you know, this is sport. Everyone’s competitive, right? You want to put on a Games that was better than the ones before. So London 2012 has now become the new benchmark for the Paralympics. And what it definitely did was it put the subject of disability front and centre in society in a way that had never happened before.

Tanni: I remember leaving the stadium one night in London and there was a mum with a daughter, a quite young daughter with double-leg amputee. And she was walking very slowly out of the park and the mum was just pootling alongside her. And you could see the mum just wanted to pick her up and stick her in the wheelchair and push. And the mum wasn’t doing that. And I talk to everyone, so I stopped and said “have you had a nice time?” And her mum was just like, “yeah”. And I said “what happened?” [mum]“We’ve been here every day. We’ve watched loads of stuff.” And she said “at the start of the Games, my daughter covered her legs and she preferred to be in a pram as opposed to a wheelchair”. Because she knew– although she knew she’d get treated differently being a young child in a pram, she felt she was treated worse if she was in a wheelchair. And she’d watched loads of stuff and she’d watched Jonnie Peacock. And she was now walking in a pair of shorts and showing off her legs. And I was like “Oh God”. So I said to this young girl, “what do you think of Jonnie?” and she says “oh he’s amazing” and I said, “do you want to be like Jonnie Peacock when you grow up?” And she looked at me as only a seven, eight year old can. And she went “Well, that’s stupid, because Jonnie’s a boy and I’m a girl!”

Sophie (narration): OK, so it’s clear that the London 2012 Games made the UK, and perhaps even the world, sit up and take note. So what next? By the time the Rio 2016 Games came around, even TV stars were keen to get involved. Here’s RJ Mitte of the US hit drama Breaking Bad.

[Clip 16: Slide guitar ‘Breaking Bad’ theme tune]

RJ Mitte: I really wanted to get involved because, you know, the Olympics and the Paralympics to me are such a pivotal part of our society when it comes to what we can do. The mentality of the human condition of how far we can push ourselves. And I was trying to get involved with them. And in the US wasn’t really making the cut. And in the United Kingdom, Channel Four was more than happy to pick me up.

Sophie (narration): But what many people don’t know is that the 2016 Paralympic Games were very nearly cancelled and it is only thanks to the determination and the resilience of the Paralympic movement that they happened. They actually had the furthest reach of any Games in history, more than 4 billion people watched from over 150 countries.

[Clip 17: Flag ceremony Rio]

Woman: Ladies and gentleman, the Paralympic flag handover ceremony. Senhoras e senhores, a cerimônia de entrega da bandeira paraolímpica.

[Clip ends]

Sophie (narration): What a rollercoaster these past few years have been, but here we are, through all of the delays and hardships of a pandemic, the 16th Paralympic Games are underway. So, what can we expect from the Games this summer? I knew just the person to ask. Juan Pablo Salazar. For 14 years, Juan Pablo who is the President of the National Disability Council in Colombia, as well President of the Inter-American Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities, has been a global and passionate activist for the Paralympic movement and for rights of persons with disabilities.

Juan Pablo: Well, the Tokyo Games are such an unusual Games because well, of course, we are dealing with this meteorite that hit Earth called Covid, that right now it’s more like a survival mode. We need the Games to happen for our system and mostly because of our athletes. And I think it’s also like a message of hope for the world. You know, we are a little bit of that light at the end of the tunnel.

Dai Tamesue: [Starts speaking in Japanese] 

[Fades under narration]

Sophie (narration): Dai Tamesue is a legend in Japan – he represented Japan in the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Olympics, and since retiring has taken a particular interest in athlete development, and has a passion for the Paralympic movement. I asked him about Japan’s intended legacy for the Paralympic Games.

[Dai Tamesue fades up and then under translation]

Translator (over): The most fundamental impact on Japanese society, in my opinion, is about labelling. In Japan, we offer support to people with disabilities, but conversely, that results in people with disabilities being grouped together. People with disabilities are on one side, and healthy people are on the other, clearly separating them into different groups.

In the same way, if we raise the question of labelling in the Paralympic Games, we are not merely talking about people with disabilities, but also those people who are not Paralympians. I believe that the biggest legacy of the Paralympics is to free us from the stigma of those labels – like being Japanese, or male or female – since we tend to confine ourselves into certain frames.

[Dai Tamesue finishes speaking]

Sophie (narration): The Paralympics invites us to question the power or importance of labels and categorisation. Are they signposts for community, pride and self-identification? Or are they used to other and distance those who have always been on the margins? Language is personal and shaped by who we are and how we live. Which is why this global lens on disability and inclusion has never been more important. And according to Juan Pablo, Tokyo is taking up the charge to forge a lasting impact that reaches far beyond their borders. 

Juan Pablo: Never before in the history of the Paralympic movement has inclusion been explicitly in the strategic plan. So they started with this administration three years ago where we designed the first drawing of the first blueprint of inclusion being spoken about explicitly in our work. So, yes, it’s fascinating times. We are indeed pioneering this with all the additional challenges that that means, because, you know, this is uncharted territory. I think that if in London we matured as an elite competition of mass consumption, and in Rio we kind of consolidated that, in Tokyo we are launching, now that we know that we’re a big movement, now that we have that very well consolidated, we can start to focus on our broader purpose. So of course we will always be about sports, and that’s not going to change ever, but sports for the service of inclusion of people with disabilities. Now that we’re like adults, grown-ups, we can say, OK, we can use this massive platform and this wide and global reach to actually get some inclusion done. Through the We The 15 campaign, that is a ten year initiative, to see how we can find that philosopher’s stone we were talking about before, linking how Para sports positively and truly and measurably and objectively impacts the implementation of the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

[Fade in music: ‘Superheroes (Rising Phoenix)’ main theme.]

Sophie (narration): Bringing you through this timeline of the Paralympics, albeit it quickly, is important, because with a shared understanding of how far we have come, we can start to map out what’s next.

It’s time to stop looking back and to start looking forward. It’s time for us to think about what is next.

In episode 2 we’ll be exploring the law, the limitations and opportunities of the policies we work and live within, and how Paralympians, advocates, activists and allies are creating the change that we need.

This podcast has been made by disabled and non-disabled people, and this story is for everyone. Join us.

Sophie (narration): These podcasts have been made possible because of the support of Procter & Gamble. P&G share our ambition to create a more equal world. A world where everyone can have equal access and the opportunity to thrive. We are very grateful for their partnership in making these conversations a reality. 61% of people with a direct involvement in the production of the podcast, including guests, identify as disabled.

This podcast was created by Greg Nugent, co-founder of Harder Than You Think. I’m Sophie Morgan, your host and executive producer. Fellow executive producers are Sinéad Burke, Greg Nugent, Barnaby Spurrier, Laura Ims, Marc Pritchard and Kimberly Doebereiner.

Thank you to the IPC and Channel 4 for their support and use of archive material. Thanks to our podcast production partner Stripped Media, and also to Seneca Women for their assistance with distributing this show.  

If you want to follow the Equal Too story and join the conversation, #EqualToo, go to our website where you will also find the transcripts and video versions of the podcast, along with subtitles and a BSL signed version in the coming days. 

[Music fades up and ends]