Question: The London Paralympics proved to be a break-through from the point of view of public and media interest. In terms of ratings and audience, they matched the Olympic games. Will Sochi-2014 open up a new chapter in the history of sports?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin: I would like to begin by reminding you that Great Britain is considered the homeland of Paralympic Games. We owe the first athletic competitions among people with disabilities to Ludwig Guttmann – a talented neurosurgeon from the British town of Stoke Mandeville. He treated patients with spinal injuries – mostly World War II veterans – and he proved that sports, physical exercise and competition help patients pull through, give them faith in their power and bring them back to a meaningful life. The Stoke Mandeville Games for patients in wheel chairs organised by Mr Guttmann in 1948 were a predecessor of the current Paralympic Games.
This country has been taking part in the Paralympics since the 1980s and we have good traditions here. Our athletes are especially good at ski races and sledge hockey, not bad in curling and downhill skiing.
Generally, Paralympic sports and its wonderful representatives are attracting more and more attention. The athletes themselves with their amazing results have done a lot to promote the Paralympic movement. We have no doubt that the Winter Paralympics in Sochi will have plenty of fans.
Besides, we will be widely broadcasting these events. A Russian Panorama company that was set up specifically for the Sochi Games is responsible for international TV coverage of the Paralympics. Bearing in mind how successfully we covered the Olympics, I am confident that this time they will manage to show all the beauty and perseverance of the Paralympics just as well.
The TV audience of the London Games exceeded 3.5 billion, but we set this goal not for purely statistical purposes. The Paralympics can have a powerful positive impact on society, on people’s awareness. The courageous Paralympians literally spread their energy and demonstrate to each one of us the true meaning of such things as determination, the will to win, and an honest, passionate and active outlook. In a word, I call on all of you to visit the Games, to watch the Sochi Paralympics, to follow all the events in the media.
Question: In many countries, Paralympic athletes complain over lack of support from the public and businesses. In Russia sports for people with disabilities enjoys state support. Is there any way you can enhance this support, possibly by involving private business?
Vladimir Putin: Paralympic sports everywhere develops mainly due to state support. The success of our Paralympic athletes was also due, to a large extent, to a series of measures from improving medical assistance and logistical support to raising the federal allowances for results shown at international competitions.
I would like to remind you that before 2008, Olympic athletes were paid higher medal bonuses than Paralympic and Deaflympic athletes. Now it is all fair — all athletes competing for their country at Olympics, Paralympics or Deaflympics receive the same bonus: 4 million rubles [over $111 thousand] for a gold medal, 2.5 billion rubles for silver and 1.7 million for bronze. As of 2012, we also raised bonuses for results in European and World championships.
Besides, the number of monthly Presidential grants paid for special achievements to athletes, coaches and other members of our Olympic and Paralympic teams has grown from 500 to 700. The size of these grants has also gone up from 15,000 rubles to 32,000.
As for support of the Paralympic teams by private business and public organisations, I am sure this will grow year by year. The attitude toward people with disabilities in general has changed dramatically in the past decades. This, by the way, is due to a large extent to the success of our Paralympic athletes and the growing popularity of Paralympic sports.
Question: Do you think the Paralympics will attract more people with disabilities into sport? If so, how will the state support their growing needs?
Vladimir Putin: I would like to remind you that the key mission of the Paralympic movement is to raise the interest in sports and to promote full integration of people with disabilities into society. I am certain that the Sochi Paralympics will contribute to these efforts and will attract more people with various illnesses into sports and regular exercise. Overall, it should give them faith in themselves, in their strength and capabilities. The Paralympic athletes’ achievements and their will to win are an excellent example of how people with disabilities can lead an active lifestyle and achieve success.
Obviously, there is still a lot we need to do to make sports infrastructure in Russia free and accessible to such people. We will continue creating specialised multifunctional sports facilities and training adapted physical education instructors so that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to enjoy sports and realise their personal goals.
A lot is being done in this sphere within the framework of such programs as Development of Physical Culture and Sports and Accessible Environment. It is mainly through this work that the number of disabled people doing sports has grown in Russia in the past three years more than twofold to exceed 500,000 people. Our goal is to create conditions for more than 2.5 million people with disabilities in health to be able to engage in sports by 2020.
To popularise sports among young people with disabilities, we hold National Spartakiada Games in various events that are included in the Paralympics and Deaflympics. The 2011 Summer Spartakiada Games brought together 1,257 athletes from 56 regions, and the 2013 winter event featured 475 athletes from 38 regions of the Russian Federation. The next summer games are scheduled for 2015, and all the preparations are already underway.
Question: Sochi will be the first city fully accessible to people with disabilities; there are plans to create the same environment in Moscow. What should be done to make the entire country accessible?
Vladimir Putin: Work to prepare for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi has already set new modern city planning standards aimed at creating the most comfortable conditions for people with disabilities in health. Both city residents and visitors have already had a chance to test this.
I would like to remind you that Russia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. Work to create a so-called barrier-free environment that would give free equal access for people with disabilities and limited mobility to engineering, transportation and social infrastructure facilities and to all communications is now underway in the country within the Accessible Environment state program. We launched it in 2011 and allocated over 180 billion rubles for the purpose.
There is of course a lot to be done here as we have only started on this path, but there are already some results, for instance in terms of increasing the accessibility of sports facilities and in developing adaptive sports.
Facilities specialising in this sphere have been set up in 40 regions of the country, and by the end of 2015, they will appear in another 13. Special sections have been opened at sports schools for children in 26 regions of Russia. Besides, by the end of 2015 we plan to train over 1,400 specialists that will be professionally engaged in training and education.
Question: How can the Paralympics lead to greater tolerance in Russian society towards people with disabilities and to greater equality for those people? Do you see the Paralympics as a signal to greater tolerance?
Vladimir Putin: The very appearance of Paralympic Games radically changed the perception of people with disabilities. The Games destroyed the stereotypes that used to exist here and they continue to prove that a person’s true strength lies in character, in the ability to overcome any obstacle and meet any challenge.
Competitions among disabled people that Mr Guttmann launched as a medical treatment have grown into a sports event of global scale. They are equal to any other competition in terms of emotions and intensity.
Therefore, I am certain that the Paralympic Games will grow more popular, as will grow public interest to them. This is very important. The example set by Paralympic athletes, their courage and human dignity give hope and change life for the better. The great humanitarian potential of the Paralympic movement is irreplaceable in moral education of society, in establishing the principle of equal opportunities and in creating conditions for realising personal creative and professional goals, for a comfortable and decent life for every single citizen.
Question: Russian Paralympic teams have always been very successful. What do you expect from them in Sochi?
Vladimir Putin: There is no point in making guesses, especially in sports, where the probability of accidents beyond the athletes’ control is very high.
At the same time, Russia has every reason to believe in the team victory of our Paralympic athletes. They ranked first in the unofficial team rating in the previous selection season, and they had a significant lead.
The Russian Paralympic team always made its fans happy. Recall the recent Winter Paralympics: in Turin in 2008, they were first in the team count, as well as in Vancouver in 2010, where they came in second in the gold medal count, but beat everyone in the overall count.
I would like to note that in Vancouver, the Russian Paralympic team of 31 athletes took part in only 3 out of the 5 events. Our team in Sochi will feature 64 athletes and they will compete in all six events for 72 sets of medals, including biathlon, downhill skiing, wheelchair curling, cross-country skiing, sledge hockey and the new Paralympic event – para-snowboarding.
I believe we have every reason to hope for victory. The team is ready. Now it all depends on luck and support from the fans.
Question: Do you know any of the Paralympic athletes personally? What impresses you most about them?
Vladimir Putin: What can impress one in people who are capable of overcoming the most difficult, sometimes tragic circumstances not only to learn to live in new conditions, in a different physical state, but also to achieve success? This is of course their personal bravery, determination and amazing willpower.
There are plenty of examples of healthy and successful people losing it when they come across problems that may not even be as significant. While the life story of every Paralympic athlete is a story of victory over oneself, over one’s illness and terrible circumstances. This cannot leave anyone indifferent.
I have met Paralympians many times and I confirm that these are people of a special nature. We all need to learn from their attitude to life, to themselves and to the world around them.