The Paralympics Isn’t Great Sport With Caveats. It’s Great Sport

by Shane Thomas 

In the days after the Closing Ceremony of the Rio Olympics, the media narrative centred around the Brazilian party being over, with the nation now having to deal with the residue of the Olympic circus.

Except the circus isn’t over yet. The Olympics may be finished, but the Rio 2016 tome has further stories to be told.

In two days time, the 16th Paralympic Games will begin. The last Paralympics in London was seen as a breakthrough moment for the event. I confess I’ve long thought this praise slightly overblown, driven in part by numerous British medals, and a nationalistic desire to paint London 2012 as the greatest of all Games.

This isn’t to denigrate the palpable gains made by Paralympians four years ago. They received an unprecedented level of recognition and acclaim, and the fact that para-athletes have made London’s Olympic Stadium their space, as much as able-bodied athletes, at the subsequent Anniversary Games is heartening.

But it would be careless to think all is well with the Paralympic movement. Its impact on perceptions of disability can be unintentionally harmful (which we’ll be addressing in a few days), or cause the largely able-bodied press to write through a patronising prism[1]. Some still think the “para” in Paralympic refers to “paralysed”, rather than “parallel”.

However, what’s most disconcerting leading into the Games are its sudden cuts in funding, due to the Rio 2016 Organising Committee taking money, originally earmarked for Paralympic use, to help cover the cost of the Olympics. Robbing Peter to pay Paul may seem like pragmatism, but that does Peter no good when he also needs – and deserves – to get paid.

In conduct eerily redolent of disabled people bearing an inequitable burden of Britain’s policy of austerity, the Paralympics has become collateral damage in Rio’s desperate attempts to please the watching (and Western) world when its spotlight shone brightest during the Olympics.

But just because the Organising Committee appear to be treating the Games as a nuisance they would rather not have to deal with, doesn’t mean we should do the same.

In my Rio 2016 preview, I mentioned how the Games “functions as a calling card for many athletes”, and this holds greater significance for Paralympians. Even before their exploits in Rio, most people knew who Usain Bolt, Mo Farah, Venus Williams, or Michael Phelps were, while Simone Biles and Caster Semenya may not have been household names, but also weren’t complete unknowns.

Fame is a strong currency, and Olympians adorned with celebrity often get disproportionate attention. However, the Paralympics lacks the same stardust, with the athletes featured being less a “who’s who”, and more a “Who?”

This is why it’s important for all to try and engage with the event. And able-bodied people have to strike the correct balance between not prioritising our own perspectives, but also not rejecting the Paralympics altogether. Staying in your lane shouldn’t include ignoring what’s in the lane next to you.

Giving a cross-section of society a platform always matters more when that platform is occupied by the disempowered. The Paralympics’ importance goes beyond the chase for medals. The space they’re given is a site of pushback against the ableist attitudes and assumptions that pervade our society[2].

20th+Commonwealth+Games+Day+10+Weightlifting+qc4t-WgCqg-lThe next 12 days in Rio won’t stop ableism, nor should that be their goal. But to steal a line from a Michael Atherton article on a different subject; “How many modern sportsmen or women get to play during a time of revolutionary change?”
And it’s not hyperbolic to use the word revolutionary. Not when this is an all-too-rare opportunity for disabled athletes to have a global stage to chase excellence, chase joy, their ambitions unbound for the world to see.

Oppression is miserable, but the lives of the oppressed aren’t singularly defined by misery. The Paralympics proves that disability isn’t exemplified by suffering, and also displays disability in its variance (it’s not just a bunch of athletic people in wheelchairs).

It’s not “inspiration porn” for the able-bodied, and no Paralympian needs a condescending pat on the head for performing. The Paralympics isn’t great sport with caveats. It’s great sport. The Paralympians aren’t the lucky ones for getting to compete on a worldwide platform. We’re the lucky ones who get to watch them.

[1] – Emily Rapp Black recently addressed this very problem.

[2] – Everyday examples of this are – at the time of writing – Twitter having no hashtag symbol for the Paralympics, while Google has no schedule for the Games embedded into their website. Both of these things were present during the Olympics.

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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015

Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).

olympics - Media DversifiedThere’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.

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