Abraham Lincoln once said: "Public sentiment is everything. With it nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." That's a pretty good message for anyone thinking now about how to approach using the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in order to raise the profile of issues or affect change.
It certainly came to mind for me and many of my colleagues last weekend, when the disability charity Scope published research into public attitudes to the London Paralympic Games. The claims made suggested there was genuine concern that the Games would not provide the right platform for disabled people either to be involved, engaged or inspired. From that was extrapolated a view that scrapping a separate games in favour of combining with the Olympics was preferable – not a view I agree with at all.
What the survey did highlight was the fact that disability groups up and down the country will undoubtedly see 2012 as an opportunity to further their aims for equality and inclusion. I should absolutely state that this is an ambition that the British Paralympic Association (BPA) completely shares. The argument I have is about messaging and focus, not ambition. To go back to Lincoln's dictum, we need to make sure that any arguments put forward can capture public sentiment.
My belief is that the London 2012 Paralympic Games are and will be the best vehicle for that. The Games coming next year mean the largest event in the world for disabled people will happen right on our doorstep. It will be a momentous occasion for all disabled people and I'm confident that its effect will resonate throughout the UK. I also have no doubt that the country will be taken by surprise by the scale of the event and the quality of the sport on show.
The signs so far are very positive. In London 2012 we have an organising committee who have fully integrated all the key operational functions, thus ensuring parity of delivery for all athletes be they Olympians or Paralympians – but also had the foresight to recognise that the Paralympics need to be marketed differently. They are a unique event and are starting from a different place in the nation's consciousness. By adopting a separate marketing campaign, London 2012 has cleverly understood this.
This different approach is paying off, as evidenced by the 1.2 million tickets that the British public bought in the first round of sales, a record for any Paralympic Games. All of this has been helped by Channel 4's ambitious pre-Games programming that has introduced a whole new audience to the world of Paralympic sport. And the BBC who, although not host TV broadcaster for the 2012 Paralympics, have demonstrated a continuing commitment to covering news and events and will of course be there with us for every great British moment on 5 live and through their nations and regions programmes.
And last, but certainly not least, this breakthrough in awareness has been helped by the sponsors of the 2012 Games themselves who, through their activations, are demonstrating that they absolutely see Olympians and Paralympians as equal.
All of this activity has been a tangible expression of the BPA's core belief – that the Paralympics is first and foremost an elite sports event and that any messaging about disability is secondary. This matters, not just because our athletes train as hard and make the same sacrifices as Olympic athletes or because this is how they want to be seen. It matters because this goes to the heart of the purpose and power of the Paralympics.
This isn't – and mustn't be – an event that is celebrated only by and for disabled people. It is an event that demonstrates inclusivity at the highest level – where non-disabled people turn up in their hundreds of thousands to watch elite sport being played by disabled athletes.
It is the quality of the sport that ensures non-disabled people connect with disabled people though the common language of sporting endeavour. This language is one that everyone is familiar with – the highs and lows and drama of sport that plays out every weekend up and down the country.
Those uninitiated in Paralympic sport may expect that spectators feel sympathy for 'brave' athletes –which may lead to some disabled people who don't understand the nature of the Paralympics to feel that they are patronising. Nothing could be further from the truth – sympathy is the last emotion anyone at a Paralympic event feels – respect yes, admiration for athletic endeavour absolutely, but sympathy certainly not.
This is because spectators are engaged and enthralled by the quality of the sport itself, not by the fact that they are watching disabled athletes. The power of the Paralympic Games lies not in the gathering together of more than 4,000 disabled people, it lies in those people being elite athletes taking part in thrilling sport.
We recognised that here in the UK some time ago: it's why we have a proud track record of finishing high up on the medal table and why we've always expected the highest standard from any athlete who has the privilege to pull on a ParalympicsGB track suit (such as double Paralympic swimming champion Ellie Simmonds, pictured below). It also explains why we have delayed the decision to accept the 2012 host country slots for goalball and the women's sitting volleyball squad to give them time to reach the standards we expect.
Having the Games here in the UK will bring about a change in how people think, feel and behave towards disabled sport and in part disabled people. Every country that has hosted the Games has experienced this. But we should not expect the Paralympics to be a 'cure all' that addresses all the issues that disabled people face. It can help win the important battle for hearts and minds but there are some more intractable issues that will inevitably take much longer, and can't possibly be resolved through a single event.
That is why I was disappointed by the Scope survey. It chose to highlight sensationalist headlines suggesting that the Games should be scrapped and that a small proportion of disabled people find the Games patronising. To use the Paralympics as some sort of stick with which to beat wider society to further the cause of disabled people strikes me as an own goal. I did not think it was helpful, at the time that the second round of tickets came on sale, to have to defend the Paralympics and its right to be a standalone event, rather than being subsumed into the Olympic Games.
So whilst we ultimately share the same ambition with many disability organisations for a better world for disabled people, we are very clear in our view on the role the Paralympics can play within society to help make this happen. Through elite sport I believe we can get people to reappraise their attitudes towards disability, surely the start point for any societal change.
I would urge those groups to help us celebrate this positive message rather than take aim at the one event next year that will see disabled and non-disabled people unite on a scale that this country has never before witnessed. That is the way that we can, collectively, win over public sentiment.
Tim Hollingsworth is the chief executive of the British Paralympic Association (BPA)