Could the Paralympics make Calgary a more accessible city?

A Q&A with Calgary Paralympian Patrick Jarvis

The Sprawl

More than 25 years have passed since Calgary Paralympian Patrick Jarvis competed in the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Since then, he’s been extensively involved in the Paralympic movement both within Canada and internationally. He’s been president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, director of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games and an IOC coordination commission member for London 2012.

More recently, he was on the City of Calgary’s 17-member bid exploration committee—the group that looked into whether or not Calgary should bid for a 2026 Games.

Jarvis took a break from watching the PyeongChange Olympics on TV to speak with Sprawl editor Jeremy Klaszus.

We talk about Calgary, we talk about ’88—but the Paralympics weren’t here in ’88. So this would be totally new for us.

At Calgary ’88 they had demonstration events in alpine skiing. An interesting bit of trivia is it’s probably one of the few times that Paralympic athletes walked in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games—I think the only time. But the Paralympic Games that year were actually over in Innsbruck, Austria.

This represents an new opportunity for Calgary. Not just to have the Olympics, but to have the Paralympic Games. What is that opportunity in your mind?

It’s multifaceted. We talk about being inclusive and that Calgary isn’t the same city it was in 1988. This would be just one more powerful manifestation of how we’re not the same city, the same country. And how the world has changed.

This would be just one more powerful manifestation of how we’re not the same city, the same country.

I think legacy — which is often bandied about — is one of the great opportunities for the Paralympic Games. Around things like being inclusive and accessible. For example, all of a sudden you have 200 or 300 wheelchair users show up at the airport. How is your major infrastructure — your airport, your public transportation — geared towards handling a number of individuals with mobility issues?

How did the Paralympic Games in Vancouver and London change those cities?

London was a game changer for the Paralympic movement in terms of awareness, broadcast and sponsorship. But in many ways, London is still not a very accessible city. Anybody can test that just by getting off at Heathrow and trying to take the tube to central London with a suitcase.

You can get from YVR to downtown using a chair without special accommodation.

In Vancouver, it left a physical legacy. Look at the Canada Line. [The 19-kilometre light rail line, a legacy of the 2010 Games, connects Richmond with Vancouver and the airport.] There are elevators in every station. You can get from YVR to downtown using a chair without special accommodation.

There were also some things that were missed. Having been there through the transition between the two Games, it was like the circus got up and left town.

Was there some attitudinal change because of Vancouver 2010? Canada is fairly liberal in a lot of ways, but there’s also the hidden stuff that we tend to look away from. And one of them might be inclusiveness of people with disabilities and our attitude towards them.

I realized the other day that I’ve been covering the city’s possible Olympic and Paralympic bid for nearly a month, and haven’t once mentioned the Paralympics.

I’ve often paraphrased Pierre Trudeau’s line about when you’re sharing a bed with an elephant and you’re a mouse. That was his metaphor of being a neighbour to the United States. That’s a bit of the Paralympic juxtaposition with the Olympics. The Olympics is a sponsorship, marketing beast, profound in its size and influence. The Paralympics — in many ways we’re the mouse. It’s hard to see past the elephant.

Let’s say we bid for 2026 and get it. What would we have to do as a city to prepare? Where are we now in terms of accessibility?

There are different challenges for different modalities. For those who have limited mobility but are ambulatory, versus people who use chairs, versus visually impaired. Until you’re there or you have people who are very close to you that you can relate to, people don’t understand the day-to-day challenge.

Can you imagine being an individual who uses a chair that is trying to get down the street in downtown Calgary?

Last week in Calgary, that snowstorm — yeah, major inconvenience for the city, but can you imagine being an individual who uses a chair that is trying to get down the street in downtown Calgary? Thank goodness for Plus 15s.

There would be a lot of work. Not so much even retrofitting, but making sure that we go beyond construction standards, building codes and accessibility standards—because those are what I would call a bare minimum. You pick your battles to fight. And those would be, I think, around access to public buildings like museums, arenas and swimming pools.

You were on the city’s bid exploration committee. When you went in, were you leaning one way or the other on 2026—and did that change by the end?

I was very open, and I think that probably confused a few colleagues that know me through sport. People obviously think you’re instantly and definitely biased toward hosting a Games. It had to be on Calgary’s terms — that’s the way I approached it.

At the end, I might have been the quintessential Canadian. I was on the fence. I was quite pleased with a solid “maybe.”

Even as short as six years ago, it was very much about wooing. People were out to entice the IOC to pick them. I think it’s become much more pragmatic: “Let’s approach this as a business partnership.” Really treat it as what’s in it for each of us? And if we don’t have to work overly hard to make that work, then it’s probably a good thing.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

This story is part of Hindsight 2026, a joint project between the Sprawl and the Calgary Journal (which is produced by journalism students at Mount Royal University). We’re digging into past Olympics to evaluate whether a 2026 Winter Games in Calgary would help or hinder our city.