Zeitung Heute : „A really good time“

Student journalists talk to British Columbia’s Minister of State for the Olympics and Paralympics - Mary McNeil explains, how the spirit of the Games could influence the whole Canadian society

Monday, December 4th 2009, Mary McNeil, British Columbia’s Minister of State for the Olympics, was present at Vancouver City Hall for the press conference announcing the Canadian Students participating in the Paralympic Post writing project. We had an opportunity to meet the Minister again in her office in Vancouver.

What were you expecting from hosting the Paralympics in Vancouver?

Well, I guess I expected what I had been told from previous hosts. This was a first from Canada, the first time the flags flew together. What I expected we not only achieved, we surpassed. I think everybody has been very open and welcoming here and the quality of the sports, the quality of the athletes and the excitement of everybody around is fantastic. It''s all much better than we expected.

Are you happy with the media coverage the Paralympics have?

Yes I am. I think it''s been genuine coverage. There''s an expectation when you have the Olympic Games and then you follow them with the Paralympic Games and there is always going to be the comparisons but you should be careful about that. The Olympic Games and the Olympic movement has been around for so many decades, here in Vancouver they had 5500 athletes and all the media coverage. The Paralympics in turn are relatively new. The movement came up in 48 and has really been starting in the sixties. I think you can''t make the comparison; it''s a fit to size. I think the media has done a very good job because they have been pleasantly surprised by it all and nobody forced them into broadcasting. Even CTV, who wasn''t going to broadcast the opening ceremony, backed down in the end because the public wanted to see it. The Canadian Paralympic Committee and the IPC, the initiators of the Paralympic movement, are very happy with what''s happening. The media has started to really become aware of the Paralympics and from here on it''s only going to be better!

How would you describe the atmosphere in Vancouver now? Are you disappointed that it is not as crowded as it was during the Olympics?

There’s only a fifth the athletes at the Paralympics in comparison to the Olympics, so you''re naturally getting the fifth the family and the fifth the followers that are going to come. We are talking a huge difference in the size. Still, the atmosphere is great and the people are very excited and supportive. I think this weekend we are going to get a huge turnout down at Robson Square where we''ll have screens for public viewing for the gold medal sledge-hockey game and the closing ceremony. So no, I''m not disappointed; I think we have to be realistic in what we expect. The Olympics themselves were a lot bigger than the Paralympics now so it was clear that we wouldn''t deal with the same numbers. It''s not the same but it''s come a long way and it can go a lot further.

There’s been talk in the "Vancouver Sun" that the Paralympics are more friendly, more playful and less "high-brow" than the Olympics. Do you think this is the case?

Yes, I think it is. There is not as many people and as many traditions you have to live up to which I think it allows you to be more relaxed. From what I''ve heard from the Paralympic athletes were thrilled with the opening ceremonies and about coming into the stage where all the young kids were lining up and high fiving and the cheering crowd. It was a very warm atmosphere and I think that’s a result of fewer people, less pressure and less tradition. Also the people like me, responsible for the Olympics and Paralympics, are more relaxed. The Olympics themselves were a success; a lot of the pressure is gone. After this the Winter Games 2010 will be over, so let''s have a really good time with the Paralympics!

Another “Vanouver Sun“ article mentioned that the timing of the Paralympics is all wrong because now the enthusiasm and interest from the Olympics has died down. The article suggested to hold the Paralympics before the Olympics as an „appetizer“ instead of an „after dinner mint“. Do you think this order would have been better for the games?

I heard that as well and it was interesting to me because I thought "How would we have done things differently if that would have happened?" I don''t think we''ll know it until we do it. I liked doing it the way we did it because we are more relaxed for the Paralympics and can embrace these games. Also people had such a good time during the Olympic Games and they wanted to continue. Now they are watching the Paralympics and really get involved with them which is great. It would be interesting to see what would happen if you''d do it in the suggested way but I don''t necessarily say it is right one way or the other.

What went behind choosing to have the events take place in both Vancouver and Whistler?

In Whistler we didn''t have the capacity such as the ice rinks. It was a matter of the facilities and of spreading the crowd out. Also it gave other communities such as Richmond the chance to get involved during the Games. I like the fact that the majority of the events for the Paralympics are up at Whistler, I think it is great for the town. And Vancouver is able to experience the sledge-hockey and the wheelchair curling which are fabulous events as well.

What are your thoughts on the Paralympic doping scandals?

I don''t know enough to comment on this except that I''m sure it''s a challenge for the anti doping committee to try and figure out whether it was a legitimate drug for the athlete''s condition or whether it was an enhancing drug. Many of the Paralympic athletes have health issues and they are on medication. So how do you actually control doping? It''s not easy, especially for the Paralympics I think.

Who came up with the mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics and do you like them?

VANOC, the Vancouver organizing committee, had a group that created them. I remember three years ago, when the mascots came out I got them and the storybook that explains how they became into being for each of my grandchildren for Christmas. It was quite fun to read the book but I must admit as an adult I was thinking "Oh well that''s a little bit complicated" and giving my own sort of personal judgement about it. But when I saw the kids on Christmas day play with the mascots and embrace them right away, I knew VANOC had hit it right on. I''ve had the opportunity to go around with not just Sumi, who is the Paralympics mascot, but also with all three of them to various schools to chat with kids and as soon as I said: "I got some friends with me" and brought the mascots in their faces lit up. Everybody loves them and that''s a success.

Canada did a lot to push the Olympic winter athletes to success and I assume also to the Paralympics, maybe not as hard but still.

What are your future plans for the London 2012 games, is there going to be a program for the summer Olympians and paralympians also to keep on with the success or is it just "The games are over we''re done?“

One of the biggest lessons for me I think is the affect that the Olympics has on people. I know many who got so involved and excited about the event. It is not just about sports, it''s about national pride, about unity. And I think getting our young people excited about that through development of sport and supporting them was very unifying. I think the fact that we were successful with our "Own the podium" Strategy helps. I know the province will continue to be involved and I''m sure that the federal government will as well, both for the Summer and the Winter Games. Part of my title is "Act Now BC" and one of the things I''m looking at as a post-olympic strategy is to keep kids involved in sports by going into schools with Olympic and Paralympic athletes. They are our ambassadors; they talk to the kids about eating well, moving more, keeping physically active and having a goal like getting to the Olympics. Sport is good not only for your body but also for society. The Olympic spirit unifies us.

– Questions: Annemieke Overweg, 18 years and Anais West, 17 years

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