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Where did the sponsors go? For some Paralympians, it seems London 2012 never happened

By John Reynolds

September 20, 2013 | 5 min read

National Paralympic Day, held earlier this month in the Olympic Park, marked an opportune moment for fans to meet their heroes of London 2012, be it David Weir, Sophie Christianson or Will Bayley, who were there to sign autographs.

The poster stars of the Paralympic Games are struggling for sponsors

But one year on, now that the embers of that luminous summer have died out, how is it for disabled athletes?

In the summer of 2012, they were feted by all (public appearances, newspaper profiles) and even some of the less-heralded disabled athletes were granted the use of a shiny BMW in the run-up to the Paralympics.

And if you were an ‘A lister’ like Ellie Simmonds, then your name filled the sky.

But a year is a long time in sport and the BMWs (unless you are Weir) have been returned to the showroom and a profile of a disabled athlete is a tough sell to a newspaper editor (there were just three journalists in the press room on National Paralympic Day).

In short, these athletes are unlikely to enter the public and brands' consciousness until Rio 2016, and so those London 2012 medals must seem to be devaluing by the day.

Double gold medal winner Hannah Cockroft recently told the Guardian: “I honestly thought after London ‘I've got two gold medals, I'll be sorted, and people will want to sponsor me.’ But just the way things are, a lot of people got dropped by sponsors because people can't afford to do it anymore. BMW was only up to the Games, so they dropped me. I was sponsored by a local insurance company as well. No, I don't have very much, just the always-faithful BT.”

(Cockroft may say she was dropped by BMW but this is an emotive word, as she herself admits the partnership was only up until 2012, and the likelihood is that the contact would have included an option to extend. And BMW chose not do so.)

But her sentiments are echoed by others and at least she can point to BT, which has continued to sponsor a number of disabled athletes including Nathan Stephens, despite him having a nightmare in the F57/javelin final in London 2012.

Despite the image of disabled sport being transformed by London 2012 portrayed in some quarters, the fact is that for many it has not helped them get individual sponsorship.

Or as bronze medalist Ben Quilter, who competes in judoka, succinctly puts it: “For our sport we accept that sponsorship doesn’t exist".

Yet Quilter is a medal-winner who last year was one of BMW’s faces of the games but now has practically given up on getting sponsorship.

The problem for brands is 2012 gave birth to so many Paralympic stars that sponsoring them all is impossible, so they are forced to cherry pick.

BMW, for example, has continued to sponsor a handful of athletes but its sponsorship of the majority has ended, as it has been replaced by Nissan as the official car partner in the run-up to Rio.

For those outside of the star firmament, particularly in those sports which suffered a big cut in UK sport funding after the Paralympics, such as sitting volleyball (£800,000 cut to zero), they will simply have to work day jobs or get family support if they want to carry on playing.

It does seem a shame that more local businesses have not come to the fore, as it would seem a win, win for both parties.

Paralympic table tennis player Aaron Mckibbin is sponsored by his local South London estate agent James Pendleton, to the tune of £400 a month.

Not much maybe, but on top of the £2.7m that disability table tennis receives from UK Sport, perhaps enough to keep his mind focused on table tennis in the run up to Rio 2016.

And James Pendleton gets the goodwill of the local area by sponsoring a local athlete.

Mckibbin is under no illusion that he is in a fortunate position.

He said: “Every athlete is looking for individual sponsors. It is difficult, though, and sometimes it is luck of the draw.”

The big problem is, to put it crudely, disabled athletes are only in the public and brand consciousness every four years, during the summer Paralympics.

There is though, according to Weir (one of the Paralympians who does well out of individual sponsorship), a remedy for track and field athletes, and that is integration with the annual athletics series of meetings which takes place around the world.

He said: “I think we could integrate with the Diamond League. I can’t see why we can’t integrate with some of its top events, then it would be televised."

But with this unlikely to be forthcoming, it seems that for many disabled athletes it is as if London 2012 never happened.


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