SESTRIERE, Italy - In terms of overall public interest, the Paralympics have always fallen a distant second to the Olympics. As one proud father put it, on his way from Alaska to watch his son compete in the sit ski category, "You tell people you’re going to the Paralympics and they just stare at you… most people have never heard of it."
There are signs that things are turning around. The opening ceremony for the Paralympics on Friday, March 10 was completely sold out, with 30,000 people in the stands. Organizers also expected a maximum of 1,000 media to attend, but already have over 1,200 reporters and photographers present from over 30 different countries.
Attendance for the alpine events is well above what was expected, with spectators filling the main grandstand every day and spilling out into the side stands. There have also been sold out sledge hockey events, when Italy was playing and for the upcoming playoffs, and better than expected turnout for cross-country, biathlon and even wheelchair curling.
The final numbers for attendance will be released following the Games, but the International Paralympic Committee estimates that they have sold 150,000 tickets as of Wednesday, March 15. Part of the success can be attributed to the interest of schools in Italy and France, which account for as much as 50,000 tickets. These tickets have been provided to the students free of charge by Paralympic sponsors, and various school boards, and regional governments.
According to Torino Organizing Committee President Tiziana Nasi, in an interview for Pique Newsmagazine, the level of interest was unexpected but very gratifying.
"Certainly the number of spectators, and athletes, has increased since Salt Lake City, it is building for every Paralympic event," she said. "For one thing the tickets are a lot cheaper, so people who maybe couldn’t afford to see Olympic events are coming out to watch Paralympics.
"We also have an advantage here. Winter sports are a big part of Canada and the United States but there are so many nations in Europe and for them it is easy to come to events and be in Torino and Sestriere, rather than Salt Lake.
"But I also believe the Paralympic movement is increasing, the interest in the sports and in the athletes is increasing. We’re very grateful to see this, and to host so many people from so many countries. We’re hearing nothing but good things, and I know a lot of people here for the Paralympics are already looking forward to Vancouver and Whistler four years from now."
There have been a few complaints from the athletes about the food and accessibility around event venues and the athletes village, which TOROC has worked to address, and athletes believe things are improving. Accessibility is still an issue, but no more than at an average World Cup event.
Some of the accessibility issues also have to do with warming temperatures, which led to soft snow, mud and slush in the Sestriere athletes village. Most of the wheelchairs are now sporting mountain bike treads.
Many of the athletes are looking forward to competing in Whistler.
"Just the fact that everything is central is huge for us, and I know a lot of athletes are going to appreciate the fact that it’s paved right up to the mountain," said Chris Williamson, a visually impaired skier.
Because the 2006 venues are far apart, the athletes do feel a little trapped.
"It would be nice to be able to go to Torino and watch a hockey game, or check out the cross-country skiing, but it’s a long trip," said Whistler’s Brad Lennea, a sit skier in all four disciplines. "Our schedule doesn’t give us a lot of free time anyway, and definitely not the time we’d need to get to Torino and back.
"No event is perfect. Canada’s just a lot newer, the roads are all paved, there are sidewalks, and there are laws about accessibility. They don’t have that in Italy yet, but I think their eyes are definitely opening.
"We’re here to ski, and you can’t beat the skiing."