Opening Ceremony of the European Para Championships
Aug 08 2023

Paralympic sport ready for new step, for new audience

At the European Para Championships (EPC2023) on Tuesday, the first, historic gold medals were awarded, to seven judokas. Tournament director Jeroen Straathof called the opening day of the European Para Championships “a great success not only for that reason.” The kickoff of the joint title competition for ten paralympic sports enjoyed great attention from the international sports world, public and press.

Tournament director Straathof: “I was super satisfied by the end of the morning already. Because this event and these athletes immediately got the attention they deserve on the first morning of competitions.” Straathof, himself winner of paralympic gold in Sydney in 2000, addressed various Dutch and international media. He watched with satisfaction as camera crews made their way through Ahoy and also interviewed several enthusiastic participants.

That, for example, the NOS Eight Hour News came to Ahoy is proof that the joint European title competition in ten paralympic sports is immediately on the map. It has not escaped anyone’s attention that in Rotterdam they are fighting for honor and paralympic tickets, while at the same time promoting the development of the sport. “I get that remark very often from abroad.”

Straathof himself had also been at Tennisclub Victoria in the morning, for another interview and the start of the wheelchair tennis tournament. The Dutch tennis stars Diede de Groot and Aniek van Koot easily won their first match. They are favorites for the European singles and doubles titles. In the paralympic ball sport of boccia, several Dutch athletes were also in action.

There are challenges precisely because wheelchair tennis and boccia are so different, Straathof does not deny either. For the coming weeks, and the period afterwards. For example, it is quite difficult to explain that in judo it is precisely visually impaired athletes who are competing, while boccia is for people with a birth defect. Wheelchair tennis has two variants, for athletes with lower or upper body limitations. “It is our great challenge, and that of the athletes themselves, to explain well what these sports stand for, how they work. On the other hand, you have that with some of the able-bodied sports as well. There, too, hardly anyone knows how to reason out why a gymnast gets an 8 and not an 8.5 for his exercise.”

It is up to the ten sports – para archery, para badminton, boccia, para cycling, goalball, para judo, para shooting, para taekwondo, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis – to develop further each time. The EPC2023, many are convinced, gives them an extra push. “This event gives them the space to grow.”

Glancing at the entrance, Straathof nods toward a mother with daughter. “Those people, those are if I judge it that way and see that they came on their bikes, are not regular visitors to parasports events. That they choose this moment to come and watch judo and boccia together, I think is beautiful. It’s proof to me that these sports are ready for the next step, for a new audience.”

Straathof already heard from boccia circles that the cross-pollination between the different sports is not missing its effect. “There are more viewers in the stands there than at previous championships organized by the federation itself.”

Other sports on the EPC2023 don’t need that push. “Anyone who wants to be at the wheelchair basketball finals should hurry”, Straathof said. “The expectation is that the hall will sell out with ease during the week.” Then again, Gertjan van der Linden, national coach of the Dutch wheelchair basketball players, is used to something. His team became paralympic champions in Tokyo.

Wheelchair basketball forms with wheelchair tennis and paracycling ‘the big three’ of the EPC2023. Straathof: “Those athletes also run a full-time top sports program in the Netherlands, for example. They have already taken the step, which others may also be able to take thanks to this joint championship.”

The fact that Van der Linden initially focuses entirely on his own team is therefore only logical. “We are here to go for the European title”, Van der Linden said. “That’s where the primary task of me and my players lies.” Still, he has already ‘secretl’ looked over his shoulder at the other sports. “You can’t compare those sports at all, but logically you can think that a multisport event reaches more people than ten separate championships. If that results in extra publicity, it can have a positive effect on the paralympic movement. I notice anyway that all kinds of stake holders in parasport, such as Uniek Sporten, NOC*NSF and BEN Foundation, find each other here. If the benefit of this event is that we are all more connected, that alone is a huge plus.”

Wednesday, on the second day of EPC2023, the wheelchair tennis players, boccia players and judokas will be back in action. After the first day, Ukraine leads the country standings with 3 gold medals, 1 silver and 1 bronze. On Wednesday, judo medals can again be earned in several classes.

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