In the midst of Usain Bolt’s continued dominance on the track, Monica Puig’s historic Gold Medal for Puerto Rico and Ryan Lochte’s infamous bathroom visit, reports surfaced during the last week of the Olympics suggesting that the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games were on the verge of collapse.
The story was anticipated, given that the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, responsible for both the Olympics and the Paralympics had already revealed that only 12 percent of tickets (or roughly 300,000 of the 2.5 million available tickets) had been sold. Around the same time, in mid August, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) disclosed the financial hardship they were under due to lack of funds. They were supposed to be funded in large part by the Rio Organizing Committee, who in turn said they were left reeling after going billions over budget for the Olympics. The lack of money meant that the Paralympic Games would be heavily scaled back, with budget cuts affecting the number of volunteers working, transportation options and open venues.
At the time Sir Philip Craven, President of the IPC, even admitted that because they could not pay the travel expenses of some of the countries who relied on the IPC, there would be serious consequences to the games in the form of missing participants. “Currently we have around 10 countries who, even if the grants are paid, may struggle to cover the cost of their travel to the games,” said Craven.
The reports that the games would be cancelled, however, were met with statements from both Craven and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, branding the reports as rumors and assuring the public that the Paralympic Games would move forward as planned. “Although the situation is pretty precarious, rumors that the games may not go ahead or that sports may be cut are totally unfounded and not true,” said Craven. Paes promised that the Brazilian government would provide economic assistance to the committee.
As of Sept. 9, two days into the games, the IPC announced that they had sold a little more than 1.8 million tickets to the games, making this summer’s Paralympics second biggest in terms of ticket sales. As for participating countries, the IPC was able to host all of the countries they had planned for without having to make any cuts or leaving anyone at home.
USF alumnus and former adjunct professor Jürgen Padberg ‘04, Sports Management, works for the IPC; and although he has been especially busy these past few weeks, the games are something he’s been preparing for since the moment he was hired. “It’s kind of funny, my first day with the IPC was actually in Vancouver during the 2010 Paralympic Games. I flew up from San Francisco,” said Padberg. “I didn’t have much work to do back then, much of the groundwork had already been done by my predecessor, so I kept my nose to the ground for the first couple of years or so. Certainly until after London 2012 while I was still trying to wrap my head around everything,” he said.
Even though he was heavily involved in the making of the London Paralympic Games, which was deemed by the IPC President “as the greatest Paralympic Games ever,” Padberg feels that the Rio Games will be his first chance to show athletes and spectators what he has been up to for 6 and half years. “I consider Rio my first games that I own, because these games, Olympics and Paralympics, live on a seven year cycle. From the moment a city is awarded the games then it’s seven years until the actual games, and this is cycle that I worked on entirely almost from the beginning,” said Padberg.
Although Padberg spends most of his time in the German city of Bonn, where the IPC is headquartered, his lodging situation has become quite special in these past couple weeks. “Right now I’m based on the 12th floor of a high rise in the Athletes Village,” said Padberg, who has by now settled in nicely with all of the competing athletes he has come to know during qualification. “I oversee the entire sport program, which means I’m responsible for the 22 sports, how countries qualify their athletes, how these athletes get here in terms of how they qualified, and whether or not all the rules and regulations have been followed. My biggest project over the last three and a half weeks, unfortunately, was having to replace 267 Russian athletes.”
Back in May, the former director of the Russian anti doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkovspoke, blew the whistle on Russia’s state-run doping program, which was described by the exposé in New York Times as “meticulously planned for years to ensure dominance at the [2014 Sochi Winter Olympic] Games,” and which was later confirmed by anti doping regulators, who even found that violations extended to Russia’s top disabled athletes.
“As you may have heard we took the very difficult decision of suspending the entire Russian Paralympic Committee for the state sponsored drug doping program that has been run there for many years now,” said Padberg who had to execute the plan set forth by the IPC. “I had to, essentially on a dime, bring in more than 200 athletes.” Something he says that was not easy for him, or the athletes he had on standby to replace the 267 suspended athletes while the Russian Paralympic Committee was appealing the decision to The Court of Arbitration for Sport.
On Aug. 23, 15 days before the Opening Ceremony, Padberg received confirmation that the decision was upheld by the highest court for world sports and immediately started spreading the news. “The [replacement] athletes didn’t know what was going on, or they were hanging in limbo, then finally when the court ruled in our favor I was able to pull the trigger and start bringing people in,” said Padberg.
Padberg was also able to field a small refugee team which will compete under the IPC flag and who will officially form the Independent Paralympic Athletes team. The two members of the team are Syrian-born swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein and Iranian born discus thrower, Shahrad Nasajpour. Originally, the team consisted of five members, but issues regarding the other athletes’ uncertain status in their host country prevented a union. “It’s really really difficult if somebody lives in one country as a refugee and we get them to come halfway around the world and then be absolutely certain that when they return, they will be readmitted into that country,” said Padberg, who added “And in three out of the five, in the end, the paperwork wasn’t solid enough for us to take that risk.”
Padberg honed his sports management skills first at USF as a graduate in the Sport Management Program and later on as Managing Director of the 2009 Summer National Senior Games that were held close by in Palo Alto, which he considers is what got him the opportunity to interview and then secure a job with the IPC.
As for the issues he and his colleagues have faced in Rio: “If I were to tell you all of the problems that were going on, we could talk for hours,” said Padberg “but we we’re in the business of solving those problems,” he added. He’s also convinced that this edition of the Paralympics will leave a positive legacy on Rio since their mission is not only to showcase athletes with disabilities but also create awareness. “A lot of the things that happen in terms of making buildings accessible, making transport accessible, making venues accessible, and generally educating the population and decision makers about accessibility issues, and issues that have to do with people with a disability, and how they can be better integrated into society, all that stuff, is working in Rio,” said Padberg.
Even though the Closing Ceremony of the Paralympic Games takes place this Saturday, Sept. 18, Padberg says he’s already thinking about the next edition of the games. “I’m already looking towards the next one, just a couple weeks later I have to go to Beijing for preparation for 2022 [Winter Paralympics], in this business there’s no rest for the wicked,” said Padberg.