RIO DE JANEIRO – Three weeks ago, organizers and event fans were worried that the 2016 Paralympics would not be well-attended. But when São Paulo resident Marco Fumis arrived at a lively Olympic Park on Saturday, he was blown away with what he saw.
“I’m positively surprised by this,” said Fumis. “We are really emotional people, and I think we realized how important it is for not only the Olympics but the Paralympics. A lot of us are here to better understand how these athletes do what they do, so we’re here to support.”
The fan support is significant. The 170,000 tickets sold for events at Olympic Park on Saturday, surpassed the one-day total for some days at recent Olympics.
“It was a really, really cool environment because usually we have like five people in the stands and now we have an entire gym,” U.S women’s sitting volleyball player Heather Erickson said after her team swept Iran 3-0.
On Sunday, 46,000 tickets were sold at Olympic Stadium, the track and field venue separate from Olympic Park, according to the International Paralympic Committee.
“Everybody wanted to talk about ‘What about London?'” IPC spokesman Craig Spence said, referring to the 2012 London Paralympics, for which a record 2.7 million tickets were sold. “But (Saturday) surpassed it for me.”
A last-minute campaign that originated in Great Britain, called #FillTheSeats and supported by donors such as Coldplay, Prince Harry and U.S. Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, boosted sales for tickets given to Brazilian children.
Brazilians can buy tickets for as low as 10 reais (about $3) and pay for them on a four-month plan (2.5 reais per month), Rio 2016 spokesman Mario Andrada said.
“We have a lot of things that are hard for us, the sports brings us feelings of hope,” said Sofia Borges, a Rio 2016 volunteer and São Paulo native. “It brings hope to families and kids, and it’s also nice to see other sports than soccer.”
Total ticket sales now sit at 1,863,000, the second-highest Paralympic Games total ever, behind London. Spence admitted that the expectations were low but he said he’s overjoyed at how well the games have come together.
“We’ve got full venues, the athletes are loving it and the performance levels are what we expected,” Spence said. “We said coming in this would be the best Paralympic Games in terms of athletic performance and they’re clearly proving so.”
Indeed, coming into Sunday, 89 world records had been broken.
While Brazilians cheer hardest for Brazilian athletes, others have noticed the emotion that the fans have brought to the games.
“I think that we gain energy off of the crowd,” U.S. women’s sitting volleyball coach Bill Hamiter said. “It doesn’t matter how many people, we were just gaining energy off of them.”
Andrada described a scene that he felt embodied the spirit of the fans. When the Algerian women’s sitting volleyball team was a no-show in its first match against the U.S. on Friday, officials invited children onto the court to play. The crowd stayed to cheer on the children.
“They could have gone, there weren’t any high-ranking athletes playing; only children,” said Andrada. “But 8,000 people decided to stay and cheer on the kids as they learned the sport.”
The IPC will continue to try raise the profile of para sports between Paralympics. Brazil will host the 2017 Parapan American Youth Games, at a new facility in São Paulo. Construction for the Rio 2016 museum will be underway soon, and the IPC is producing a Paralympic Rio 2016 film.
As for current media, 154 countries are broadcasting the games worldwide, a 39-country upgrade from 2012, according to the IPC.
While these are record numbers, São Paulo resident Cristina Fumis, who attended events at Olympic Park over the weekend, said she believes that the media exposure can be better.
“The announcement for the opening ceremony was not on the front page, only a small section in the back,” said Fumis of how a São Paulo newspaper covered the Paralympics opening ceremony. “I think the media is powerful in the way that it can change the mindset of the population.”
While Spence is excited about ticket sales greatly exceeding expectations, he knows that preparation is key for maximizing potential.
“We’ve sold about 1.5 million tickets in the last three weeks, and that’s because we did a real big push on tickets,” said Spence. “Had we done this push a lot earlier, I know we could have sold out these games.”
Kennington Lloyd Smith III is a journalism student at the University of Georgia. Penn State and Georgia are partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics.