The Paralympics, one of the biggest celebrations of diversity in sports, is notoriously treated like a quiet, underfunded afterparty of the Olympics. Particularly this year, the event seems to be stuck in the trap of scarce media coverage, poor ticket sales and governmental cuts on Paralympic sports. But should the indifference towards these sports be taken for granted? There are reasons why the Paralympics is worth much more attention – and they go beyond mere pity.
The ability/disability divide in sports creates a double standard as the Olympics becomes the arena of “real” excellence, while the Paralympics is mainly reduced to the “lesser ability” of its participants. The very name of this event implies something of secondary importance; we tend to add the “para” prefix to things that are derivative, abnormal or not worth equal treatment. Paradoxically, the closeness of the event to the main Olympics doesn’t help. The sport-savvy audience celebrating the Olympics is not willing to spend more time and money focusing on the less loudly promoted event. It also causes the media to reduce the coverage for the Paralympics, which makes the event largely ignored. If we ask any given person to name three famous Olympic sportsmen, most of us would instantly recite the names of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and the likes; if we ask about successful Paralympians, many would remain speechless.
What is still missing from the public consciousness is that Paralympic players go through the same amount of effort as the so-called “real” sportspeople; I dare say, even more. Among disabled people, only about 17% participate in any sports activities. This is because disabled people are on average less affluent, and usually need special accommodations to perform any kind of sport. And in order to make it into the professional sports, one needs even more resources and, just as an able-bodied person, endless hours of training. Here comes another obstacle, which is governmental and commercial inertia. It’s no secret that sports clubs for people with disabilities are vastly underfunded, to the point that many of the participants even had to pay for their travel to Rio. At the same time, due to their low recognition, Paralympians cannot expect the sponsorship and advertising budgets that mainstream sports stars enjoy. If after all this effort, a person is still able to try to come, participate and represent their country, this deserves immense recognition and respect.
Paralympics is one of the most important ways to bring the able-bodied and the disabled closer together in order to show that, after all, we are not that different. Wherever the Paralympic Games are organized, the level of understanding for disabled communities improves. Two years ago, the Sochi Olympics completely changed the attitude of local people towards the disabled, from one of ignorance to one of acceptance and an active effort to make the city more inclusive. A sport is a sport, whether for the disabled or not – and it has always been a great way to break the divides. Particularly in the case of Brazil, there is a lot of room for improvement in this matter. Rio de Janeiro is still notorious for its lack of inclusive infrastructure and non-existent support of the government for the disabled. The city has actually been fined £690 million for neglecting the needs of disabled people. These disadvantages are made even worse due to the overall disparities in wealth, which usually leave disabled people at the poorest end of the economic food chain. The way the Brazilian disabled community is treated deprives Rio of its legitimacy to hold the event. As a disability campaigner Teresa Amaral sarcastically mentions, organizing the Paralympics in Rio “is like celebrating social equality in apartheid-era South Africa”.
Nevertheless, the Paralympics is a very important event that gives the due recognition to the people who are largely marginalized by the society. The Paralympic disciplines and traditions are different from those of the “main” sport, but that doesn’t mean they should not be taken less seriously or considered less worthy of attention. Whether in a wheelchair or not, every sportsperson is trying to be the best at what they are doing. If governments, firms or people with their decisions tell the disabled that their effort is less valuable, the whole idea of competitive sport is also put into question.
This article was written by Konrad Krawczyk. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: paralympic.org