Canada’s sports minister has a deep background in Paralympic sport as an athlete and leader.
Carla Qualtrough says athletes will be able to compete to the best of their abilities in Rio de Janeiro despite the scaling back of the Paralympics in the city.
A swimmer and former head of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, she doesn’t expect competition for medals to be impaired in cash-strapped Rio.
WATCH VIDEO: Sport Minister Carla Qualtrough recalls wearing black grease under her eyes “like a football player” when she swam in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics. The three-time bronze medallist says she is still driven to be the best she can be.
“Make no mistake, there’s been challenges,” Qualtrough told The Canadian Press from Rio.
“I’m absolutely confident we’re going to have world-class performances here in Rio. The events are going to be run really soundly. All the experts from around the world from the different sports are here.
“They’re in their venues and making sure that the athletes’ experience on the field of play is top drawer. We’re going to have to be patient with everything else.”
Less than three weeks after the close of the Olympic Games, the curtain rises on the Rio Paralympics with Wednesday’s opening ceremonies.
Canada’s 162 athletes are among the 4,300 competing in 23 sports. Canada’s objective is a top-16 finish in the overall medal standings.
Before the close of the Olympics, Rio organizers said deep budget cuts meant reduced workforce and transportation and the closing of some facilities for the Paralympics.
The Associated Press reported a financial bailout from the Brazilian government helped salvage the Paralympics.
On the brighter side for Rio, organizers say there’s been a jump in demand for tickets with sales reaching 1.6 million as of Tuesday.
The 2012 Paralympics in London were considered a watershed moment for athletes with disabilities competing in summer sport.
Britain being the birthplace of the Paralympics, there was no noticeable difference on the ground between the Olympics and Paralympics in organization, transportation services, television and media coverage and ticket sales.
Financial problems aside, the Paralympic movement is at a different stage in Rio than it was in London. Qualtrough, also Canada’s minister for persons with disabilities, says the Paralympic legacy left in Rio will be significant.
“I think the two takeaways from these Games are going to be, first of all, world-class performances,” she said.
“Secondly, there’s going to be a big social transformation in this city. The way this city is going to see disability after these Games, it’s a genie you can’t put back in the bottle. What you’re going to see coming out of this is coaches who never turned their mind to coaching an athlete with a disability are going to now look at athletes differently.
“When employers look at the accomplishments of Paralympic athletes and they say, ‘If that person can do this, maybe they can work for me,’ or, ‘Maybe they have money to spend, so I make my shop accessible so they can get in here and spend their money,’ all these social legacies of a Games will really be impactful for Rio and Brazil as a whole.”
Qualtrough is representing the Canadian government in Rio.
Her experience swimming for Canada in 1988 in Seoul and 1992 in Barcelona makes her “a little more fretful in the stands because you know exactly what the athletes are going through,” she said.
The 44-year-old mother of four and visually impaired lawyer won three relay bronze medals during her career. She also narrowly missed the podium in individual races by finishing fourth four times, which stings to this day.
“It still does,” Qualtrough said. “One was by three one-hundredths of a second. That was the 100 breaststroke which was my best stroke. My goggles fell off when I dove in the water.
“I was super competitive. We ended up winning bronze in the relays, but it sucked.”
Swimming was held in an outdoor pool in Barcelona in 1992. Her eyes sensitive to glare, Qualtrough said she put stripes of black grease paint under her eyes like a football player to deflect light.
“My favourite memory of Seoul was the very first time we entered the Olympic (pool),” she recalled.
“They let us all jump in the pool in the dark and then they turned the lights on one section at a time and we all just looked around at this building. It was just so awesome. It was very dramatic.”
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press