Sochi Paralympics: Corporate sponsorship the ‘last barrier’ for athletes

When it comes to the costs of pursuing a Paralympic or Olympic dream, athletes in Canada face a mostly level playing field, though a few bastions of inequity remain.

Companies starting to sponsor para-athletes but still spend less

For Paralympians, it's still a race to financially keep up with Olympians in terms of corporate sponsorship.

When it comes to the costs of pursuing a Paralympic or Olympic dream, athletes in Canada face a mostly level playing field, though a few bastions of inequity — like corporate sponsorship — remain.

"In relation to the rest of the world, Canadian Paralympians are doing very well in terms of how they’re supported and funded," says David Howe, a former Canadian Paralympic athlete who now studies the Olympics for Loughborough University in the U.K. "I think we should celebrate that, but we also need to be looking at issues of equitable treatment.”

The largest gap in equitable treatment lies in corporate sponsorship.

Billions of dollars are spent by corporate sponsors around the world to attach their brands to the Olympic Games, as well as to individual athletes and their heroic tales.

The Paralympics, by comparison, receive far less funding of both the sporting event and the athletes themselves, though some suggest that’s finally changing.

"To me, this is the last barrier," says five-time Paralympic athlete and CBC commentator Chantal Petitclerc. "But this is changing. I can already see it this year with Sochi and I saw it last year with London — a lot more Paralympic athletes getting corporate support."

The ads airing on television and online themselves speak volumes, says Petitclerc.

This year’s lead-up to the Sochi Games saw several companies investing in ads about Paralympic sports and athletes. One prominent example involved a Procter & Gamble series of ads on the moms of athletes that included one on the mothers of Paralympic athletes.

'You could have turned the world upside down so that I would never feel pain, but you didn’t," a young woman’s voice says over a montage of children with disabilities swimming, playing hockey and skiing. "You gave me my freedom because you were strong. And now so I am."

A 'commercial record'

Last week, Proctor & Gamble also announced that Canadian sledge hockey player Greg Westlake was added to its roster of sponsored athletes.

While that type of sponsorship is heralded as a sign of improvement, former Canadian Paralympic Committee president David Legg points out that the majority of those sponsored remain Olympians. 

Still, he notes that in recent years Canadian Tire signed on with the Paralympic committee to focus on persons with disabilities in its JumpStart program to help cover the costs of kids getting into sports. Other companies have also improved their portrayal of para-athletes.

There are also positive signs on the international horizon.

On Tuesday, the International Paralympic Committee hailed the 2014 Sochi Games as a “commercial record” for a winter Paralympics after its marketing program raked in $95 million from a growing roster of sponsors.

It's an improvement, but, by comparison, the top Olympic sponsors fork over $100 million each for their four-year deals, while a secondary tier of sponsors pays about half that amount.

Much of the discrepancy boils down to the visibility of the athletes.

The Olympic Games markets itself as "one of the most effective international marketing platforms in the world, reaching billions of people in over 200 countries and territories throughout the world."

Chantal Petitclerc shows off her medal haul. The Paralympian believes sponsorship is the last barrier for athletes with disabilities. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But fewer countries and athletes participate in the Paralympics, and it garners far less media attention around the world.

"If you’re not getting exposure from the athletes, then giving equipment to them or signing a contract deal with them is a waste of money," says Howe, at the Loughborough University Centre for Olympic Studies and Research.

Petitclerc, one of Canada’s most famous Paralympians, says she struggled financially in her early years as an athlete, but corporate sponsors sought her out after her stellar, record-breaking showings. The five-time Paralympian first competed in the 1992 Barcelona Games and over the years won 21 Paralympic medals, including 14 golds, in wheelchair racing.

For Petitclerc, a key concern was how corporate sponsors viewed her.

"Whenever I had a new sponsor, I would always tell them I don’t want you to sponsor me because I’m in a wheelchair. I want you to sponsor me because I’m a great athlete and I have a great story that can really reflect the values of your company," she says. 

"That’s how athletes want it to be. They don’t want charity because they are Paralympians or have a disability." 

Trickle down effect

Petitclerc says she's buoyed by the spate of advertisements featuring para-athletes, and says the Canadian Paralympic Committee is also doing a great job of advertising the athletes.

The committee put out a spot that starts off showing a slice of video that gradually widens to reveal a Paralympian and the message, "It’s not what’s missing. It’s what’s there."

While athletes themselves don’t directly profit from brand name sponsorship of the Games or Paralympic committee marketing, the benefits eventually trickle down to them.

When major corporate players invest it elevates everyone's profile, and smaller companies follow in their footsteps by sponsoring their local athletes, says Legg, who teaches about physical education at Calgary's Mount Royal University.

He sees this as an area in which sponsors see the opportunity for growth.

"What we are seeing is corporations recognizing that there are great storylines with athlete with disabilities: perseverance, dedication, toughness,” says Legg.

His hope is that in the coming years Paralympians reach equal footing in the marketing arena.

“I want to be able to go into a major sporting goods store and see jerseys hanging on the wall with the names of Paralympic athletes on the back.”


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