by Fran 🏅🇬🇧🇬🇧🏅
(Mis)Representation Issues Within Paralympic Sport
Throughout Paralympic sport literature, there has been some reference to the (mis)representation of some athlete groups, that is increasingly prominent after each four year cycle, at Paralympic Games.
Within the rhetoric and discourses that flow through Paralympic literature, there exists a sense of concern directed towards the future of the Paralympic games. Indeed, the Paralympic Movement has some extremely complex issues to face. Whilst the success and media interest in the Paralympic Movement has gained significant momentum, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this, in turn, culminates in a diversion away from the cultural roots of Paralympic Sport.
The origins of the Paralympic Games stem directly from an archery test event in Stoke Mandeville in 1948. The founding father of the Paralympics, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, inaugurated these games as a method of rehabilitation for people with spinal injuries. Guttmann’s book “Textbook of Sport for the Disabled”, can be described as the first modern text that discusses the intricacies of disability sport. Guttmann delivers a positive recognition towards the need for a social model outlook on disability sport, and disability in general. Indeed, he suggests that disability sport should aim to develop a person’s confidence, dignity and range of choices which bringing with it society’s attitudinal changes towards disabled people. Guttmann’s text provides the foundation for the positive development of Paralympic Sport.
Needless to say, Guttmann has not been the only writer to suggest that Paralympic sport should inspire attitudinal changes towards disabled people. Indeed, it has been recommended that societal attitudes have changed dramatically over the past fifty years. Reasoning for this is placed, in the most part, upon the developments of the disability rights movement and the emergence of the social model of disability.
In his book “The Paralympic Games Explained” Brittain devotes a chapter to explaining the intricacies and development of the relationship between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Paralympic Movement. In his thesis, Brittain notes that whilst this relationship had a tenuous start, the formation of the two movements working together is, on the whole, a positive situation. He suggests that, fundamentally, this has allowed the Paralympics to evolve into a global games.
Interestingly, it could be argued that the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games highlighted the need for even closer working relationships between the IOC and IPC. Thus, by developing these closer relations, the IOC would be able to expand its moral compass and add weight to its Olympianism philosophy as a doctorate for non-discrimination and accessibility.
Nevertheless, whilst relations between the IPC and IOC are thought to be, predominantly positive, there are issues and difficulties to consider. The closer ties, mentioned above, were formalised in 2001, extending to the transfer of broadcasting and marketing responsibilities in 2003. Some have suggested that these developments place severe limitations on the IPC’s ability to promote and provide education about disability sport, because the two movements are now marketed as one entity. Thus, it could be argued, that the Paralympic Movement becomes no longer solely about a showcase of talent, nor a method of education, but merges into the need to produce a fresher and more marketable "Paralympic Product".
Indeed, as the Paralympic Movement becomes more commercialised, it is questionable whether the IPC can retain its heritage whereby they work towards providing equal opportunities for all impairment groups, at the high-performance end of sport. As such, in relation to the classification systems and the need for a slicker games, instead of promoting the participation of those who are perpetually under-represented, the IPC are actively reducing already lower participation rates for women and athletes with higher support needs (AHSN).
At the London 2012 closing Ceremony, Lord Coe stated that this year’s Paralympic games has had a ''seismic effect in shifting public attitudes'' to disability and disability sports. It is, of course, too early to establish what the lasting effects of London 2012 will be, but one can only hope. Until London 2012, the media coverage of the Paralympics was limited. Thus, the social awareness of Paralympic sport, even amongst the disabled community, has been sparse. Not only does this lead to a lack of recognition for athletes but it also affects young disabled people’s awareness of what may be possible. Furthermore, it could be argued that this is further entrenched by the IPC removing events that relate to those wishing to take up sport; if events are not taking place, or being talked about, then there is, seemingly, nothing to aim for.
For each Paralympics, the IPC offer the opportunity to bid for the rights to show the Games on Television. For 2012, in Britain, Channel 4 dramatically out bid the British Broadcasting Commission - both financially and in terms of dedicated airtime - offering £6 million and 400 hours of coverage. This is by far the largest amount of coverage the Paralympics has ever seen and could help turn Lord Coe’s words into fruition. At the other end of the spectrum, however, America produced five and a half hour highlight programming for their athletes.
This, it is argued, is due to the “deficit” and “invalidity” body imagery portrayed by disabled people. Even former IPC president, Dr Steadward - when commenting on Paralympic sponsorship and media attention - can be quoted as saying ‘we know that the severity of disability can be unsettling for some people, because it is a reminder, a reality check, of how fragile the human body is’.
In her research, Anderson (2009) concluded that, for disabled people, everyday notions such as sport take on newer and broader meanings. Indeed, she suggests that sport can promote an evolution of identity, confidence and interaction levels that could be influential in overall personal development. However, whilst there have been vast levels of research into the issues of sporting opportunities and integration for women and ethnic minorities, there is very little in relation to disabled people.
Women, statistics suggest, are less likely than men to take up sport, this is even truer in Paralympic sport. The IPC Mission Statement, as well as other IPC documents, states that they are dedicated to developing opportunities for women athletes and AHSN in sport at all levels, indicating that they are the two “hardest hit” athlete groups.
Finally, one of the biggest causes of (mis)representation of athletes with more severe impairments, arguably, comes down to finance. Brittain has collated figures from Beijing 2008 which show that the highest percentage of such athletes come from the most developed countries, thus those with the highest levels of funding. The significance of this arises when one realises that such athletes may require more support, be it in the form of a carer or a specialised coach, so will cost the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) more money. Therefore, each NGB, especially on a tight budget, needs to establish whether to take an extra athlete or extra support staff. Furthermore, as funding is predominantly dependent upon the number of medals won, the NGBs will be looking to increase medal potential, and with athletes with more severe impairments having less events, medal potential is low.
This editorial endeavours to highlight a large amount issues and questions that have arisen within the development of Paralympic sport over recent years. Interestingly, there are a few quagmires that become apparent as a result of carrying out this review. Firstly, we see that Paralympic athletes do not gather masses of media attention and recognition, thus people are not getting into sport because they have no confidence or role models. Secondly, the benefits of sport are echoed throughout documents by various types of commentator, yet if participation is not encouraged and disabled people are not included in sports at any level, the benefits will not be felt.
Finally, the minimal awareness of Paralympic sport in general will be further entrenched by the IPC removing events that relate to those wishing to take up, or even merely watch, sport; if events are not taking place, or being talked about, then there less to aim for and show interest in.