I’m getting really excited about the Paralympic Games, which are less than a week away; opening ceremonies are on 29 August. In fact, the other day I was so excited that I thought about being utterly ridiculous and going to London, and actually got as far as researching tickets before remembering utter chaos of the ticketing process, which would probably stymie my chances of getting into any of the events I’d like to see. But seriously, my new passport just came and it's crying for an excuse to be used!
The Paralympics started in 1948, originally among a group of disabled veterans who wanted a sports competition comparable to the Olympic Games. The games have grown tremendously since then, making them the largest international event for disabled athletes, and among the largest sporting events period, in the world. They are, in short, kind of a big deal, and they’re also kind of awesome.
(Image via Stuart Grout on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
You’re going to see some of the best disabled athletes in the world at the Paralympic games, competing in a variety of events broken down by different classifications. Classification is necessary because the nature of an individual athlete’s impairment can radically impact performance, and great care is taken to create a level and orderly playing field for people with different kinds of impairments. You’ll see records set and broken at the Paralympics, and you’ll see some truly astonishing acts of athleticism.
Or maybe you won’t.
Because unlike the Olympic Games, which got a ton of media coverage, continuous airing on numerous channels, special broadcasts, and other attention, the Paralympic Games are almost invisible in the US media. Meanwhile, Channel 4 in the UK is planning approximately 400 hours of broadcast coverage of the Paralympics.
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Here in the US, we’re basically getting a YouTube channel and some highlights shows. Fortunately the International Paralympic Committee will also be running material on their website. US viewers will have to go to the Internet for coverage, because the television isn’t offering it.
And I’m willing to bet that we won’t be seeing a daily Google Doodle for the Paralympics. Nor will we be seeing coverage of who’s the sexiest athlete, or extensive interviews with Paralympians. Paralympic athletes won’t be heralded as American heroes, and people won’t be tuning in to events with bated breath or complaining about spoilers due to tape delay. Most people who don’t follow the sports world would be hard-pressed to name more than a few Paralympians, while even non-sports people can think of at least five Olympic athletes without trying too hard.
What coverage we do see will probably focus on a lot of annoying stereotypes about people with disabilities. I’m going to hear about how Paralympic athletes are “so inspiring,” for example, and there will be a lot of supercrip tropes tossed around. Rather than being viewed in their own right as athletes, they’re going to be viewed as objects of fascination because they’re disabled.
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The Paralympics are a serious sporting event with serious athletes. They run alongside the Olympics to showcase the best in athletic skill across the ability spectrum, and to take advantage of the fabulous venues custom-built for the Olympiad. Yet, they typically receive short shrift; Paralympians in general are underfunded compared to their counterparts and less money is available for the Paralympic games. The substantially reduced media coverage is reflective of an overall lack of interest in the Paralympic games.
After the Olympics closing ceremonies, everyone talked about how the Olympiad was “over” and now they could go back to whatever it was they had been doing. Except that the games weren’t over, and a whole new set of games is beginning shortly; from blind and visually impaired athletes playing goalball to people with cerebal palsy competing in the equestrian events, the Paralympic Games are going to be ferociously competitive as well as illustrations of the amazingness of the human body at work. The level of dedication and skill required to become an athlete on that level deserves more media attention than a handful of disinterested articles.
The gulf in interest between the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games really kind of speaks for itself. Athletes occupy a unique place in society, and Olympians in particular are subject to a kind of hero worship. Paralympians, however, don’t receive that kind of coverage, even though they’ve endured the same grueling physical training, qualification competitions, and other obstacles in the way of getting to the Olympics1.
When people tell me ableism isn’t a social issue, I point to things like this, because ableism is at the underlying root of the considerable difference in interest between these two sporting events. It’s not just that the Olympics are much larger, with more events, more participating nations, and more athletes. It’s that the Olympics are associated with ablebodied perfection2, a classical ideal, and the Paralympic Games are considered lesser-than, a consolation prize handled out to the disabled athletes rather than a legitimate sporting event.
(Image via the United States Marine Corps Official Page on Flickr, Creative Commons license)
2. This despite the fact that disabled athletes can and do compete in the Olympic Games if they qualify. See Oscar Pistorious, one notable recent example:
(Image via the Global Sports Forum on Flickr, Creative Commons license)