Are The Paralympics Patronising?
This week a survey by charity Scope caused uproar when it was suggested that a less than a quarter of disabled people are excited about the Paralympics in 2012 – with 65% believing they should be merged with the Olympics.
Half a dozen equally bleak statistics were also trotted out in the report, but the one that stuck out to me most was “22% of disabled people questioned felt ‘patronised’ by the Paralympics.” Why does it stick out? Because it questions the core purpose of Paralympic sport, and is the only statistic to have emerged from the survey that cannot simply be countered by more stats. Whether or not this little info-nugget is a true reflection of the disabled population as a whole is a moot point – what it suggests is that there are at least SOME disabled people out there who feel that the Paralympic movement sends out a message about disabled people that doesn’t truly reflect the way they wish to be perceived.
Having spent the last year and a half following the future stars of the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the one thing that has become abundantly clear is that Paralympians are working damned hard to achieve Paralympic glory. Day in, day out, they sweat, bleed and vomit (sometimes on me) through their training regimes just as hard as their Olympic counterparts – and the rigorousness of the tests that they have to undergo and standards they must conform to are equally gruelling.
What the Paralympics provides is a platform for dedicated, hardworking individuals to achieve at elite level, without the complications that disabled people often face in other walks of life – and perhaps it is this latter point that the controversial 22% see as a bone of contention.
At the risk of inflaming the entire Paralympic population then, decoding the naysayers’ argument would read something like as follows: There are less disabled people in the world than there are able-bodied people, and even less with the specific disabilities required to be considered eligible to compete in the various categories in each of the 21 Paralympic sports. Add in that the likelihood of disabled people choosing to pursue a life in sport is less than that of the able-bodied – this means that the overall pool of potential competitors in Paralympic sport is smaller than that in Olympic sport.
And as in all walks of life, being the best in your field isn’t always about trying the hardest. Doubtless there have been thousands, if not tens of thousands, of footballers throughout history that spent just as much time practising keepie-uppies as David Beckham did as a kid – or runners that spent just as long running up and down a strip of tarmac as Usain Bolt – that did not go on to achieve the same level of sporting greatness. Hard work is certainly a vital component of success, but it’s likely by way of sheer luck that both David Beckham and Usain Bolt were also born with a natural aptitude for their sport which allowed them to achieve above and beyond their equally hard-working peers.
Of course many, many Paralympic athletes are similarly blessed with a natural aptitude for their sport as Becks and Bolt have been – but presumably they are also rarer given the smaller pool of potential competitors.
So how can you ever really, really be sure that the Paralympic athlete you are watching is actually any good – as opposed to just the best of the bunch? And should we hold these people in equal, or even higher, regard than say, Stevie Wonder or Professor Stephen Hawking – who have achieved at an elite level in fields where the complications that disabled people often face in other walks of life are in abundance? Wonder and Hawking’s pools of potential competitors aren’t just made up of people with similar ailments – they are made up of anyone and everyone willing to take on the challenge, disabled or otherwise.
“So what?” the counsel for the defence retorts: Is Avatar a better film than Citizen Kane because it took more at the box office? Is Thrust SSC more fun to drive than a Bugatti Veyron because it’s faster? Does the fact that the cast of Glee have had more singles in the chart than The Beatles mean they’re better musicians?
To answer ‘Yes’ to any of those questions is to slightly miss the point of movie making, car design and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What Paralympic sport offers is a complexity and depth that able-bodied sports just can’t match – because it’s not just the winning that counts, but also how you win.
For example, leg amputees have an advantage in Sitting Volleyball because they don’t have to fold their legs out of the way. Blind footballers have an advantage in ball control if they learned how to play before they went blind – but their congenitally blind team mates are likely to have a more attuned spatial awareness of their place on the pitch. And Powerlifting – the Paralympic equivalent of Olympic weightlifting – is open to athletes with all types of mobility impairment, but the sport tends to be dominated by dwarves because to successfully perform a lift requires the athlete to fully extend their arms. Dwarves have shorter arms – therefore don’t have to lift the weight as far as athletes with normal length arms. Name me one fact about the Olympic Canoe Slalom team that’s as interesting as those, and I’ll eat my hat!
There is an irony that disabled people who feel patronised by the Paralympics are putting their focus on what Paralympians don’t do, rather than what they can do – this generally being the number one bugbear of most disabled people the world over.
Paralympians capitalise on whatever they’ve got (or haven’t got) to get ahead – just as ruthlessly as any other successful person would, disabled or otherwise – when faced with competitors who are willing to sweat, bleed and vomit, day in, day out, in order to beat them. So rather than patronising, I’d be more inclined to describe them as admirably intimidating – but then having said all that, intimidation probably isn’t the core purpose of Paralympic sport either.
The convoluted classification systems, the inter-team rivalries and the fascinating people that dedicate their lives to winning gold – that’s what makes Paralympic sport so compelling – and for the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Channel 4 Television is committed to showcasing these intricacies and eccentricities in a way that’s never been done before. Perhaps the Paralympians should all down tools and take up piano lessons or astrophysics degrees à la Wonder and Hawking – but it seems to me like such a waste when they can offer so much hardcore sporting action instead.
Do you think the Paralympics are patronising? Let us know by leaving a comment!