Brazil eyes Paralympic big time in 2016

Paralympic rugby players, who are members of the Brazilian team, take part in a training session in Rio de Janeiro on Sept 2, 2015.
Paralympic rugby players, who are members of the Brazilian team, take part in a training session in Rio de Janeiro on Sept 2, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - When Brazilian Daniel Dias looks in the mirror, he does not just see a young man missing his hands and one leg, but a multiple champion swimmer helping to turn his country into a Paralympic powerhouse.

Brazil may be struggling on the football field and not exactly first rank in most Olympic sports, but one year before it becomes the first South American country to host the Summer Games, it is emerging as one to watch in the Paralympics.

Brazil finished in seventh place in the London 2012 games and now hopes to break into the top five when Rio de Janeiro holds the Paralympics, starting on Sept 7, 2016.

Generous funding for the Paralympians appears to be paying off. Things are harder with the Olympic team, which hopes to get into the top 10 medal rankings, itself a huge improvement from 22nd place in London.

"We have a generation of athletes who are absolute winners and who come from London or after London and are already world champions and record holders," said Brazilian Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons.

Mr Dias, the best Paralympic swimmer in Brazil, is a leading example.

At 28, he has 15 Paralympic medals, including 10 golds, and several records. Six of those golds came in the London games.

"Sport changed my life, the way I saw and accepted my disability," he said. "I understood that disabilities are inside all of us, that it's not a physical thing, because everyone has some kind of disability," he told AFP.

The world of Paralympics "doesn't have the superstars of individual sports like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps," which helps the Brazilians make their mark, said Mr Michel Castellar, editor of the Rio Olimpico blog in the daily Extra.

Despite preparing to host the two sets of Summer Games, Brazil's own teams lack a state-of-the-art training center. They're building one for both types of Olympics - but only for after the games.

But that has affected the Olympic teams more than the less sophisticated Paralympic athletes.

The Paralympics sector in Brazil is unusually well funded thanks to a 2001 law which gives two per cent of lottery proceeds - rising to 2.7 per cent next year - to the Olympic and Paralympic committees.

When it comes to spending that money, the Paralympic Committee gets an advantage over its Olympic brethren: direct control over two of the biggest sectors, swimming and athletics.

Usually these would be controlled by their separate federations, but with direct control the Paralympic committee has been able to decide better how to make investments.

Funding the Paralympic teams has paid off handsomely: Brazil rose from 24th place to seventh in the medal haul in 12 years.

Before the law was approved, Brazil's Paralympians got 22 medals in the Sydney 2000 games. Four years later they won 33 medals in Athens, then 47 in 2008 in Beijing. In London, the haul was 43 medals, including a record 21 gold.

Next year, the committee will have considerably more funds, with the budget rising from about $23 million in 2014 to $45 million.

"These resources will help increase preparation of the Paralympic program," and also the new training center, Mr Parsons said.

The best athletes will also get scholarships allowing them to train and compete full-time.

That success is changing attitudes in a country where the disabled sometimes appear to be invisible. Poor or non-existent wheelchair accessibility can turn a simple trip across Rio into a nightmare.

A video produced by the Paralympic organisers that shows disabled athletes performing surprising feats and breaking stereotypes has gone viral.