At times here in Santiago, Chile, the roars and cheers for the athletes have been so loud you can feel the noise rattle through your body.
Throughout the first few days of competition at the Parapan Am Games there have been spellbinding scenes unfolding inside the venues.
Thousands of Chilean fans young and old, draped in flags, waving flags and holding signs — some even with faces painted — have been cheering and chanting and making not only the hometown Para athletes feel like heroes, but all competitors have received rapturous applause.
After the matches families and friends and perfect strangers have lined up around the wheelchair basketball courts, tennis courts and basically anywhere they can get a moment with the athletes, sneaking in photos and selfies, shaking hands and sometimes even hugging the athletes.
For many in the Chilean capital this is their first experience watching Para sport. They might not know the names of the competitors or the rules of every sport, but what’s been clear throughout the first few days of the Games is that the spectators attending have been moved.
WATCH: IPC’s Andrew Parsons on spirit of Parapan Am Games:
“These athletes have overcome a lot in their lives. The Parapan Am Games are very important to this part of the world,” said Andrew Parsons, president of the International Paralympic Committee. “It gives another platform for the Paralympic movement in this region.”
Parsons knows how much an experience like this can change the hearts and minds of a nation and how people think and feel about people living with a disability.
“It’s more than gold, silver and bronze. When someone watches the Paralympics for the first time, there’s this reaction of surprise. And then after a few minutes they forget about the disability and it’s pure sport,” Parsons told CBC Sports. “There’s this sense of admiration and then you just want to support them.”
Parsons has been in Santiago for about a week, soaking up the competition and speaking with delegations from around the world about the state of the Para sport movement in the Americas region.
He says already he’s noticed a difference in the way Chileans view Para athletes.
“It happens in every country in South America. When people see their athletes excelling they can become national heroes. And it changes the way people view those with disabilities,” he said. “Seeing these athletes become household names has been fantastic.”
Grew up in Brazil
These Games are of particular significance to Parsons, who grew up in Brazil and was the chairperson of the Americas Paralympic Committee from 2005 to 2009. He assumed the role of the IPC president in 2017.
“It’s been a great experience here for many reasons. They’ve embraced these Games. When you see them taking photos with the athletes and hugging them and celebrating them, they’re embracing the Paralympic movement,” Parsons said. “I believe this will propel the Paralympic movement in Chile to a new standard.
‘These games are really going to be a catalyst for change.”
Parsons is being more aspirational than ever about what the Paralympics should be and what the future of the movement heading toward next summer’s Paris Paralympics looks like. In what he calls the next chapter of the Paralympic movement, Parsons believes that Paris will usher in a new era for people living with disabilities globally.
“I think the Paris Games are going to be the most spectacular in the history of the Paralympic movement,” Parsons said. “Paralympic sport is better than any other edition and we are impacting more people around the world than ever before.”
‘Changing the world’
Parsons said the Paralympics has shifted from just a sporting event with the focus on Para athletes to expanding outside of the sport and finding ways to connect with people on a different level. He says from what he’s witnessed the awareness of the country is enhanced and the overall perception of what people who have disabilities are capable of changes as well.
“Now we are contributing more than we used to in changing the world,” he said. “It was important to establish the Paralympic Games as the third-largest sporting event in the world, as an elite event because we needed to change the mindset of the people.”
That’s what keeps him motivated these days, knowing that through the power of sport and events like the Parapan Am Games, the livelihood of not just the athletes but everyone living with a disability is enhanced and they feel a sense of belonging.
“You need to be brave and make these decisions and tell your society Paralympians matter,” Parsons said. “For years we were focused on creating a very powerful sport movement and now we’re opening the doors to say not only is this a sport movement but it’s for all people with disabilities around the world.
“We have the opportunity to see this to its full potential now.”