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Beijing’s Olympic-Size Public Relations Campaign

Four months before the largest sporting event for athletes with disabilities was held in Beijing, China, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake devastated the Sichuan province 930 miles away from the nation’s capitol. While emergency workers flooded the area to assist in the recovery and treatment of the thousands injured, construction workers were putting the finishing touches on the Bird’s Nest, Water Cube and other venues that would host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Two Games, Equal Splendor” was Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games’ (BOCOG) motto for the 2008 Paralympics. Past Paralympic Games had been greatly overshadowed by the Olympics, which are held two weeks before, but BOCOG sought to produce a Paralympics that stayed true to its founders’ ambition: to create a sporting event for elite athletes with physical disabilities parallel to the Olympics.

BOCOG’s mission though was far greater than putting on an equally stupendous show. They sought to use the arrival of the Paralympics as a public relations campaign to develop China’s relationship with its extremely large and seemingly hidden disabled population.

According to an article on Reuters, there are nearly one million registered disabled people living in the Chinese capital with another estimated 81 million, roughly the population of Germany, in the rest of the country.

“In the vast and poor countryside, no more than two percent of people who need such aids get them,” the director of the China Disabled People’s Equipment Development Centre, Xu Xiaoming, said.

While BOCOG could not solve all of the problems of China’s disabled community, they sought to create a barrier-free Beijing and to include people with disabilities in the preparation and promotion of the Games. According to a People’s Daily Online article, Beijing invested 600 million yuan (about 88 million U.S. dollars) to install and improve accessible facilities. Public awareness campaigns were organized, and in Beijing, more than 5,000 residents with disabilities were recruited as community supervisors to check whether accessible facilities functioned well.

Partnerships were also made between Chinese middle schools and national Paralympic committees to educate the students about the Paralympic movement and spread the Games’ message of “Transcendence, Integration and Equality.”

I had the privilege to witness the “equal splendor” first hand as an athlete at the Games and feel a personal connection with the images of this campaign. I saw jumbotrons nestled next to ancient temples and promotional banners scaling skyscrapers. I saw the passion of the Chinese people and the pride they had for their country. In return, the people saw me as an athlete solely and surrounded me with awestruck expressions and outstretched autograph books.

One of the most memorable images of the Paralympic Games was of 11-year-old Li Yue. Dressed in a sparkling pink tutu, she sat upon the shoulders of Lu Meng, China’s prince of ballet, and performed to Ravel’s Bolero in the opening ceremonies. Yue had been at school the day of the Sichuan earthquake four months earlier and was trapped for 70 hours beneath the rubble. Now she performed before an audience of millions bridging the gap between the disabled and able-bodied community with her single red ballet slipper.

Two days after the closing of the Paralympic Games, Beijing’s factories were running at full production and both odd and even numbered licensed cars were on the road. Beijing was getting back to its normal schedule, and critics worried that meant reverting back to its old habits. Six months after the Beijing Games, amidst an economic crsis, people fear that Beijing’s boom has gone bust. More importantly, I am unsure if the barrier-free Beijing still exists. With a lack of follow-up material, few outside of China know.

– Mary Allison Milford

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