While David Weir won six medals at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics, it wasn’t until the British wheelchair racer claimed four more golds at this month’s London Games that he started to be acknowledged in public.
The Paralympics, which finished Sept. 9, attracted record crowds and were broadcast live by the U.K.’s Channel 4. Weir completed a sweep of his four events by winning the T54 marathon on the final day. The sprint finish watched by thousands of spectators in central London followed his victories in the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meters.
“To see of all of those people shouting out your name, it was amazing,” Weir said in an interview at the London office of his sponsor Philip Green, the billionaire owner of U.K. fashion retailer Arcadia Group Ltd. “I get recognized now in the street. It’s all very new for me but also very special.”
The “Weirwolf,” as Weir is known, was the most successful Paralympian of London 2012 alongside his team-mate Sarah Storey, who won four gold medals in cycling. They carried their nation’s flag at the closing ceremony, where Rihanna and Coldplay performed in the Olympic Stadium.
Since starting in the shadows of the Rome Olympics in 1960, the Paralympics have grown from 400 athletes representing 23 nations to more than 4,200 competitors from 164 countries in London. A record 2.7 million tickets were sold for this year’s edition, compared with 1.8 million at Beijing.
Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, called the London games “the best ever” at the closing ceremony.
J Sainsbury Plc, the U.K.’s third-biggest supermarket chain, today extended its endorsement of the British Paralympic Association by four more years after “an incredibly successful games.”
The extension will help “athletes, coaches and support staff build on their success in London and look forward to even greater medal success in Rio 2016,” Chief Executive Officer Justin King said in an e-mailed statement.
In 2010, Sainsbury became the first stand-alone sponsor of the Paralympics in a deal the London Evening Standard at the time said was worth 20 million pounds ($32 million).
The British Paralympic squad broke its own record with 120 medals at London 2012, including 34 gold, and finished third on the overall medals table behind China and Russia.
The increased media attention for Paralympic sports may also boost both Weir’s bank balance.
“We’re seeing a massive shift in interest,” Jamie Baulch, Weir’s agent, said in an interview. “People have now really taken notice of Paralympic sports and started to take it seriously. Now, sponsors are starting to look at them, and saying, ’Actually, someone like David Weir is a world-class sportsman.”’
Weir, born with a severed spinal cord, started competing when he was nine after a racing wheelchair was donated to his school. The softly spoken south Londoner with a tattoo on his chest that says “winner” in Japanese has two elder brothers who were talented amateur boxers.
Baulch, an Olympic silver relay medalist at Atlanta in 1996, said he’s in talks with “a number of companies” about potential deals for the 33-year-old Weir, who endorses GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Lucozade drinks brand, carmaker Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Green.
“David has become a recognizable face during these games, and that makes him attractive for brands,” Baulch said.
Philip Green started sponsoring Weir three years ago after the racer had a chance meeting while training in west London’s Richmond Park with one of the Monaco-based billionaire’s friends and told him he was still looking for a sponsor. Weir said Green is in touch regularly.
Weir, who has won six gold, two silver and two bronze medals in his Paralympic career, credited South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius for raising awareness of Paralympic sports.
Known as “Blade Runner” because of his J-shaped carbon fiber legs, Pistorius last month became the first athlete on prosthetic limbs to compete in the Olympics. At the Paralympics, he won the 400-meter T44 final and lost his 100- and 200-meter titles.
“He still competed well in the Paralympics and he got beaten,” Weir said. “It just shows you how fierce the competition is. People are now finally recognizing that Paralympic sport is great.”