Ahead of the Paralympics, we learn more about how the contest leads the way in sports equality

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From woman-to-woman mentoring to mixed-gender teams, the Paralympics is leading the charge when it comes to equality for women in sport. Stylist investigates how the ‘superhumans’ are rewriting the rules

Words: Corinne Redfern, Lizzie Pook and Zoe Beaty

Four years ago, as the crowds roared in the Olympic Park’s bustling basketball arena, wheelchair rugby player Kylie Grimes smashed her chair into the wheels of Will Groulx, captain of the American national team. This bone-crunching metal-on-metal clash was a unique moment – the first time a woman had competed alongside men in the previously all-male GB wheelchair rugby team (aka ‘murderball’, thanks to its uncompromising brutality).

It was the perfect display of how equality in sport should look, and a message that those behind the Paralympic Games (taking place in Rio de Janeiro from 7-18 September) are fighting hard to champion. Compared to sporting bodies such as the Football Association, Rugby Football Union and even the International Olympic Committee, the Paralympics is powering ahead when it comes to gender equality. While the Olympics has mixed equestrian, badminton and tennis, the Paralympics allows mixed teams in everything from rowing, archery, cycling and tennis, to shooting and boccia (similar to bowls). There are new initiatives to introduce more women behind the scenes and more gender-equal medal opportunities. Impressive.

“The British Paralympic Association has 50% of women in executive leadership positions and 33% of all leadership positions are held by women,” says Charlotte Richardson, engagement officer for Women in Sport. “There’s still a lot of work going on to improve those figures. Gender equality is a huge issue for disability sport, and it’s worth remembering that this still hasn’t even been achieved in able-bodied sport. The inequality faced by those in the Paralympics is far more severe than their Olympic counterparts in the first place, and that’s what makes these actions so incredibly impressive.”

Indeed, while mainstream sports continue to struggle to address the gender gap – men still get more prize money than women in 30% of all UK sports – the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is beginning to implement initiatives to pave the way for worldwide gender equality. Historically, this disparity in the Paralympic Games has always been greater than at its Olympic counterpart. In 2012, only 35% of Paralympic athletes were women, versus 44% of Olympians. But this year the number of female Paralympians has climbed by around 10% to over 1,600 (double what it was 20 years ago). In Rio, women are competing in 43% of all Paralympic medal events, a 12% increase on London 2012. It’s clear no-one’s resting on their laurels.

Take the paratriathlon as a case in point. As the event makes its debut in Rio, officials have ensured men and women can take home an equal quantity of medals by increasing the number of disability categories open to female triathletes, to match the men.

Paula Dunn, head coach of the GB Paralympic Programme, believes the IPC is so proactive in its commitment to gender equality because its eyes are open to discrimination in sport. “The IPC works with people who are already at a disadvantage because they’ve got a disability,” she says. “Their awareness of what discrimination feels like means they’re more open to challenging stereotypes.” And it’s not just on the track, court or field (where the world’s media can easily notice their progressive stance) that they’re striving for equality. The IPC’s development arm, the Agitos Foundation, recently launched a ‘WoMentoring’ programme, where 16 businesswomen in sport mentored 16 promising coaches, leaders and board members. A good idea, seeing as there’s now an extensive body of research that clearly shows sports organisations benefit significantly from balanced male and female representation at board and executive level. So the IPC’s progressive approach to gender equality is already visible. However, just as with FTSE 100 boardrooms or government cabinets, it’s not as straightforward as imposing a 50:50 split on Paralympic teams. Back in 2003, the IPC announced that all participating countries needed to work towards a gender balance of at least 70:30 (male to female) at all levels by 2009. By London 2012, only 45% of countries had managed it, despite research revealing nations that rate highly in gender equality bring home more medals. Naturally, it’s something the IPC has firmly set its sights on. “Men [from all backgrounds] are consistently told they’d be good at sport, so they just go for it,” says Paralympic swimmer Liz Johnson. “But I meet women who never even realised they could be considered for the Paralympics.” This, of course, is something they hope to change.

It’s not always easy though. Getting recognition for achievement in sport is a well- documented battle faced by women of all abilities. But Paralympians have additional challenges. “The biggest inequality you face is actually about your impairment,” says Johnson. “People tend not to see you as male or female – they just see you as a para-athlete. We all come up against the barriers of being a disabled person. However, what’s great these days is that people are being held to account on social media. Calling out discrimination is vital – and the more we do it, the more people will start changing their behaviour. With more visibility and opportunities, we’ll reach equal ground in a shorter amount of time.”

It’s a message that could – and should – be applied to all events. But as sports governing bodies across the globe struggle to achieve even a semblance of equality [the boards of almost half the 63 sport organisations surveyed by Women in Sport don’t meet the 25% gender balance guideline], the fact remains that those behind the Paralympics are well on their way to smashing the so-called ‘gold ceiling’ before anyone else.

“Discrimination is missing the point of what sport is about,” says Johnson. “What the Paralympics does is take the focus away from disability or gender and highlight a global community of amazing athletes who are at the very top of their game. And that definitely deserves to be celebrated.”

The Paralympians to watch

Keep your eyes peeled for these medal contenders at Rio

Sophie Christiansen

The 28-year-old is pretty excited about Rio, her fourth Paralympic Games. “Looking for a Union Flag bikini – can’t believe how few choices there are for sale!” Christiansen tweeted recently. The Berkshire resident, who won two golds in Beijing and three in London, is hoping for three golds in dressage, aka ‘horse ballet’. “It takes a lot of practice to make it look so effortless,” she says, having begun riding aged six as part of her physio for cerebral palsy. Outside sport, she works part-time at investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Dressage starts 11 September

Lauren Steadman

Now 23, Steadman swam at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, before switching to triathlon, which makes a Paralympics debut this year. She was born missing her lower right arm and will compete in Tri 4/S9. Steadman has won the European Championship four years in a row, and is reigning world champion. “[Everyone] sees me as favourite, but I expect tough competition,” she says.

Triathlon starts 10 September

Libby Clegg

Sprinter Clegg, 26, is one of the fastest female Paralympians in the world. A deteriorating eye condition known as Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy disease has resulted in slight peripheral vision in her left eye, and a reclassification of her event means the Scot will have to wear a blindfold in Rio. “I’ve never come out of the blocks blindfolded; it’s terrifying,” she says. VI-classified runners like Clegg are tethered to ‘guide runners’ such as her guide Chris Clarke. As of this year, they’re both eligible for medals.

Athletics starts 8 September

Sophie Carrigill

Six years ago, Carrigill was paralysed in a car accident. Now the 22-year-old sports psychology student from Leeds is co-captain of the wheelchair basketball team. “I started playing with the Back Up Trust, a charity that helps people with spinal injuries,” she says. “I was terrible, but I gradually improved.” Within a year, Carrigill won gold.

Wheelchair basketball starts 8 September

Megan Giglia

In 2013, Giglia, a sports coach from Stratford upon Avon, suffered a brain haemorrhage that paralysed the right side of her body. She took up cycling at a Talent Day, where people aged 13-35 with impairments can try different Olympic sports, and was selected for a World Championship two years later. After breaking the world record in the C3 500m time trial, the 31-year-old (a self-proclaimed “mega-mad stroke survivor”) will make her Paralympic debut in Rio. “Hopefully I’ll continue to get stronger and faster,” she says.

Track cycling starts 8 September

Jessica-Jane Applegate

The World Champion swimmer recently turned 20, but there was no cake or alcohol on her birthday, as she has her sights set on being on top form for Rio. The world record-holder has autism spectrum disorder, which affects her coordination. “I’m very clumsy,” she explains. Since winning the 200m freestyle S14 in a Paralympic record time at London 2012, she’s bagged medals at every major championship, plus an MBE in 2013.

Swimming starts 8 September

Watch coverage of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on the BBC and Channel 4 from 7-18 September

Photography: Getty, Rex Features, British Wheelchair Basketball, PA