Paralympics: A Catalyst for Inclusion

by Ying PEI

The Paralympic Games, a beacon of inclusivity and athleticism, stand as a testament to the human spirit's resilience and determination. Founded by Sir Ludwig Guttmann in 1948, the Paralympics have evolved into a global celebration of excellence and diversity. Stemming from the rehabilitation efforts for World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries, the Paralympics have transcended their initial purpose to become a platform for athletes with various disabilities to showcase their talents on the world stage.

The term "Paralympics" originates from the Greek word "para," indicating a parallel status to the Olympics, underscoring the two movements should be side-to-side. As its etymology  suggests, paralympics are intended to portray athletes, regardless of ability or disability, as elite participants on an equal footing. However, media representation has often deviated from this principle. The depiction of Paralympic athletes in media has historically been contentious due to the ongoing portrayal of these athletes as fundamentally distinct from their able-bodied counterparts. The dominant narrative surrounding Paralympians has often positioned them as subjects of either pity or inspiration. This representation has faced criticism for its condescending tone and shallow focus on disability rather than athletic excellence. By accentuating the athletes' disabilities and framing their achievements as superhuman, the media risks undermining their athletic prowess and reducing the Paralympic Games to mere spectacle. Consequently, the original notion of parity between the Olympics and Paralympics, centered on athletic merit, often gets overshadowed by societal perceptions and media biases. 

For example, a BBC's 2019 report titled “Incredible Athletes: The Inspiring Stories of Paralympic Hopefuls” profiles five promising disabled athletes poised to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, foregrounding the adversity they have encountered in their lives, whether through natural circumstances or accidents, and the resilience with which they confront these adversities. Regrettably, the coverage dedicates a disproportionately smaller percentage of its content to discussing the athletes' actual athletic performances, with greater attention accorded to their narratives of inspiration and perseverance:

Matt Scott - wheelchair basketball

Four-time Paralympic wheelchair basketball player Matt Scott shares his remarkable recovery from a life-threatening illness. 

The 34-year-old, who plays professionally in Germany, says he came close to death but returned to the court after four months in hospital to make an emotional basket with his very first shot.

However, the paradigm has shifted towards a minimization of disability recently. 

Commentators and journalists exhibited professionalism and adherence to factual reporting in their portrayal of the events, focusing on tactics and pertinent athletic performance aspects. Nevertheless, this inclination frequently resulted in the marginalization or complete disregard of an athlete's disability. 

The IPC has explicitly emphasized the importance of avoiding the portrayal of atheletes with impairments who achieve success as “extraordinary” or “inspirational” in its guidelines for reporting on para-athletes, released in 2021. 

An article celebrated a gold medal win in the men's T54 marathon event of an Australian para-athlete was even without a mention of the athelete’s impaireent, focusing purely on the performance and results.

"Silver bullet" Marcel Hug cemented his place among the all-time great Paralympic athletes when he defended his T54 marathon title on Sunday for his fourth gold at Tokyo 2020.

The Swiss wheelchair master opened an early gap on the field with only silver medallist Zhang Yong able to stay in touch before Hug dropped the Chinese athlete over the last two uphill kilometres.

Inevitably, minimizing the acknowledgment of disability could shift focus from the real-life experiences of individuals with disabilities in the world, reinforcing the misconception that ability represents the standard, while disability remains as abnormal and overlooked.

4,400 athletes from the globe will compete at the 2024 Paris Paralympics Games, with a record number of broadcasters, attracting more than 3 million spectators around the world. Despite the growing interest in Paralympics from the general public, for most of the 1.3 billion people, that is 1in 6 of us,  experiencing significant disability, engagement in sports, exercise, and physical activities remains exceedingly challenging.

2.1 Financial Barriers

Sports are expensive, let alone elite para-sports. Adapted sports equipment is expensive — a special wheelchair for playing wheelchair basketball can cost as much as $5,000. As a Paralympic Athlete Danelle Umstead disclosed, their family spend $90,000 a year on equipment, travel, and childcare. In Paralympic years, those costs are alleviated by an influx of sponsorships. Another harsh reality is that people with disability are at higher risks of poverty and social exclusion. As an Eurostat studies suggests, Among people aged 16 or more in the EU, 29.7% of those with a disability (activity limitation) faced a risk of poverty or social exclusion, contrasting with 18.8% of those without a disability.

Source dataset:  hlth_dpe010

2.2 Infrastructure and Accessibility

Fitness facilities and recreation centers hold promise as venues for "health enhancement" for numerous marginalized groups, especially individuals with physical or mobility disabilities who are unable to fulfill regular physical activity recommendations by walking outdoors due to mobility constraints or safety concerns. 

A study measured of the overall accessibility of 44 self-proclaimed “accessible” fitness and recreational centers for people with mobility disabilities in Ontario in assessing their physical and social environments. The result comes astoundingly that none of the 44 was completely accessible.

Beyond the hinders of the built environment (i.e., uneven terrain, non-adaptive changing room and shower), programmatic and attitudinal barriers to physical activity exacerbate low participation rates. For instance, many staff of fitness facilities lack the knowledge or desire to development adaptations that could facilitate participation. 

The last 3 decades have seen a profound influence in every perspective by neoliberalism, which takes on social Darwinian characteristics that subdivide society into more and less powerful or winners and losers. The notion of “survival of the fittest” puts ableism at the core of an individual, and thus view disabilities as personal deficiencies and burdens on others and the society, excluding them from equal participation in social activities. 

Middleton asserts that the justification for this type of exclusion often stems from the belief that disabled individuals are perceived as noncontributing members of society and therefore do not deserve equal treatment or investment in their education. This contention suggests that disabled individuals will not fully assume citizenship responsibilities as they grow up, which Middleton argues can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such reasoning is rooted in interpretations that attribute disability-related challenges solely to the individual and their impairment, thereby overlooking the broader social and economic factors at play. Middleton’s explanation for such an approach is based in the arena of political economy and power.

These entrenched prejudices not only consign individuals with disabilities to the periphery of society and to the lowest echelons of the economic and social hierarchy but also compel them to internalize these discriminatory attitudes, eroding their self-esteem and impeding their pursuit of excellence and personal fulfillment.

Ever since the 2012 London Games, the requirement for candidate cities to have a detailed Paralympic and Olympic legacy plan has been established. Consequently, inclusivity has emerged as a pivotal objective for every organizing committee. Thus, 2024 Paris Games have made the inclusion of disabled people a major priority.

However, how can the Paralympic Games legacy, which predominantly focuses on high sporting performance among a small number of elite athletes, be reconciled with the broader objective of encompassing a diverse group?

3.1 Accessibility Improvements

Firstly, involvement in recreational sports during childhood lays a fundamental groundwork for future athletic achievement. More investment should go into improving the accessibility of recreation and fitness venues, increasing the participation of people with disabilities in physical exercises.

3.2 Grassroots Development Programs

Investing in grassroots initiatives that promote Paralympic sports at local levels can widen the talent pool and encourage participation from diverse backgrounds. These programs could include inclusive sports clubs, school outreach programs, and community events tailored to individuals with disabilities. 

3.3 Financial Support and Sponsorship

In fact, only during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games did American para-athletes receive equal compensation per medal earned as their Olympic counterparts, marking a substantial 400% pay increase. Prior to this, while U.S. Olympic athletes received $37,500 for a gold medal, U.S. Paralympic athletes earned only $7,500 for the same achievement. It is remarkable that in one of the most advanced nations globally, para-athletes were compensated significantly less than their Olympic counterparts, highlighting an inequitable disparity in pay.

First of all, Paralympic athletes must obtain equitable financial compensation akin to their Olympic counterparts. Furthermore, it should make sponsors realise the vast potential of Paralympic Games and para sports, which is a lucrative market. Enhanced financial incentives are essential to encourage greater participation among individuals with disabilities in sports. Governments, institutions, businesses, and other organizations should provide subsidies for the involvement of people with disabilities in sports, covering expenses such as equipment, venues, coaching, and more.

In an era marked by upheaval and skepticism, where disputes and animosity abound, the Paralympics possess the capacity to unify and uplift people. As wealth disparities widen and societal divides deepen, it becomes all the more import for sports to be accessible to all. Regardless of social or physiological differences, sports should instill a sense of empowerment and liberation in every individual. Let us harness the Paralympic Games as a conduit to reintroduce to all the fundamental and timeless elements of sport: passion, solidarity, freedom, and resilience.