Tim Hollingsworth: The Paralympics and the celebration of difference

London 2012 changed the perception of Paralympic sport in Britain ©Getty Images

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Fifty days from now several hundred athletes and support staff from ParalympicsGB will march into the Maracana Stadium behind the Union Flag at the start of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Whether competitor or coach, this moment is one of fulfilment after at least four years of hard work. I know the pride they will be feeling. That they are at the Games. That they are there to do their personal best. But that they are also there to represent the nation, too.

These days there are very few positive manifestations of Britishness. Most of the way society is organised to deliver, represent or compete is at ‘home country’ level. Maybe that is the way many would like it. But as the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association I recognise the power of that Britishness and its impact on the rest of the world - and the responsibility we have to athletes that hail from all four home nations of the United Kingdom.

It feels particularly relevant right now, as we head into the Games - as I know it does for our colleagues at Team GB who head off even sooner to the Olympics. It is a chance to assert globally the positive power of a British identity, and to show the rest of the world that we are still a major force and power to be reckoned with at least when it comes to Olympic or Paralympic success.

Back home I hope we offer a summer where the British public can get behind the national teams, and feel pride in the achievements of our athletes. To the rest of the world I hope we show a confident, positive side to Britain that is welcomed and recognised.

It cuts even deeper than that in the Paralympic Games. Sport at the highest level is a pretty ruthless business and we are there to compete and to win. But at the same time there is a celebratory quality to the Paralympic Games which is unique.

It is the most inclusive, welcoming sporting event in the world. It actively promotes difference, celebrates the ability of individuals to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t. And it does so across a truly global stage -with the Rio Paralympics welcoming around 3,450 athletes from 176 countries.

That special quality needs to be retained and built upon. Today we are also launching the BPA’s strategy for the next five years, as we look beyond Rio to the Games ahead and ultimately to Tokyo 2020. The vision we have within that strategy is to “through sport, inspire a better world for disabled people”.

That vision started with the incredible catalyst of the London 2012 Games. The Paralympic Games in London was a defining moment in the history of a movement that began in this country and is still less than 70 years old. It delighted and inspired the public here and demonstrated to the rest of the world what is possible when you use the power of sport to highlight and celebrate difference.

It remains our vision today and is more important than ever. The new strategy is called ‘Inspiring Excellence’ for good reason. We exist primarily to support and inspire excellence in our athletes - but they in turn through their endeavour are strong examples of an inspirational impact that can spread far wider.

To disabled people of course, who we hope are emboldened by the Games. But more to the non-disabled majority who will have their perceptions of what is possible challenged, and I hope their prejudices disproved.

We still have a way to go. Inspired by London 2012, the competition our athletes will face in Rio will be tougher than ever.

But I do believe the Rio Paralympic Games can be a statement. To the rest of the world, that we are and remain a confident, inclusive, positive force as a nation, as well as very good at winning. And to ourselves that we can and should continue to celebrate difference and take pride in the achievements of our fellow citizens.

Given some of the debate that other sections of society have engaged in recently, and the political agendas now emerging around national identity, that feels more timely, and necessary, than ever.

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