Athletes first? Defining the Paralympic Games

By Andrea

The countdown clock to the 2012 London Paralympics passed the 200 day mark this week and it feels like the heat just got turned up a notch. Granted I might be a little biased in my media consumption, but between the launch of the IPC’s new website, Josh Dueck landing a back flip in a sit ski, half a dozen parasport qualifying events happening this month and additional Games tickets going on sale it feels like the Twittersphere has gone #Paralympic crazy. Personally I’m experiencing a strange mix of nostalgia and excitement. Nostalgia as I realize it’s been nearly two years since Courtney and I walked in the parade of athletes at the 2010 Games; Excitement as details for London 2012 are slowly being revealed. The result? I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time looking at old photos and browsing the London 2012 website.

All of this has led me to reflect upon one of the central questions I had when designing this blog project—WHAT ARE THE PARALYMPIC GAMES? Let me elaborate. Two years ago at the 2010 Paralympics, Courtney admitted to me she was disappointed in the Opening Ceremonies. Not disappointed with the response we got from the crowd!!! The memory of walking into BC Place with the Canadian team and hearing the crowd just roar will stay with both of us forever. But she was disappointed with the program that had been created for the event. Why? It wasn’t Canadian enough.

It’s true—the Olympic Opening Ceremonies a few weeks prior had been a massive tribute to ‘Canadiana’—think mounties, wheat fields, voyageur canoes, orca whales and Joni Mitchell. The Closing Ceremonies even more so—a satire of Canadian clichés that included William Shatner and a giant inflatable beaver. In contrast, the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies had very little of what we here like to call CanCon. Instead it was billed as a “celebration of ability” featuring Luca ‘Lazylegz’ Patuelli breakdancing with crutches and Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham doing back flips in his wheelchair on a giant skatepark. A moving tribute to Terry Fox rounded out the night. In Courtney’s words “the 2010 Games Ceremonies were more of a PR campaign [showcasing disability] than a celebration of Canada and our nation’s top Paralympic athletes.”

Image of 'rocking' wheelchair racers at the Opening Ceremonies.

2010 Opening Ceremonies

Don’t get me wrong—it was a fantastic show and I enjoyed every minute of it! But Courtney’s comments did get me thinking— why did the Olympic ceremonies showcase our nation and the Paralympic ceremonies showcase what might be termed disability culture?

Ian Brittain, a leading scholar in Paralympic studies and disability sport, identifies this as one of the major issues in the Paralympic movement (be sure to check out his book). He claims that, since its inception in the 1940s, the Paralympic movement has struggled to address the question: Are the Paralympic Games a cultural event or a sporting event? He states, “Cultural games have as their aim an ethos of fostering self-respect and belief amongst their participants as well as helping to solidify their social identity as a group” (Brittain, 2010, p.92) and cites the Gay Games and Maccabiah Jewish Games as examples. In contrast, one would assume that a sport event is about—well, sport of course.

I think what Courtney objected to in reference to the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies (and I’m taking a risk here speaking for Courtney—I’m sure she’ll weigh in herself in the comment section) was that the 2010 Paralympics were about disability culture and disability identities rather than sport performance or nation building (in the sense of countries backing ‘their’ teams in good natured competition). Clearly the production of the ceremonies was geared towards presenting the 2010 Games as part of a broader disability movement and the references to elite sport were secondary (although certainly the nine days that followed were awesome display of high performance sport!).

Personally I’m not sure where I stand on the debate—but I do think it is one worth having. How we view and describe the Paralympic Games has significant consequences for the future direction of the event. The Opening Ceremonies are only one very small aspect of a much larger movement but they are one of the few moments that have the ability to penetrate mainstream media (reaching those individuals don’t read every tweet with #Paralympic…). When viewers think back on the Games, images from the ceremonies are sure to be a large part of what they remember. Certainly that was the case for Courtney— Vancouver might have been my first time in the parade but she’d been there a few times before…

“Past Games have focused on the home country’s culture. Prominent Australian singers (including Kylie Minogue) sang at the Opening Ceremonies in Sydney, which also featured Aborigines dances and artwork, digerdoos, huge kangaroos and Olympic sprinter Cathy Freeman along with Paralympian Louise Savage… At the Opening Ceremonies [Barcelona 1992] they really made it feel like the performances were for the athletes—people on stilts dressed in traditional Catalan clothing dance in amongst us… Athens [2004] promoted Greece being the seat of civilization and China’s performance there as the next host was all about Chinese dance and artistry. Ironically, China, Australia and Spain are powerhouse in the Paralympic movement. They get it—Paralympic sport is about athletes performing at an elite level against the rest of the world—and not a campaign of ‘Wow, aren’t these guys inspiring? Look at what they’ve overcome.’ Maybe that is why the Paralympic movement is struggling in Canada—society focuses on what makes each Paralympic athlete unique (their disability) instead of seeing Paralympic athletes on the same level as their Olympic counterparts. They don’t see the athletes first, they see the disability first.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Courtney’s assessment of the 2010 Ceremonies, she raises an excellent point (you may have also noted she was the one who coined the name for this blog… AthletesFirst). Deciding whether it is athletes first or disability first is at the center of that other perennial debate in the Paralympic movement—should the Olympics and Paralympics be one event or remain apart? This is an issue that has split the Paralympic community down the middle. Prominent figures such as Dr. Robert Steadward (founder of the International Paralympic Committee) claim there is no reason that the Winter Olympics and Paralympics at least shouldn’t be conjoined (he acknowledges the sheer size of the summer events makes this unlikely – read full story here). Meanwhile, the BBC’s Disability Affairs Correspondent, Peter White has been vehemently arguing the move to join the events would the death knell of the Paralympic movement (read his article and the comments it inspired here).

At the heart of these debates is a very simple question: What makes the Paralympics special? I raise this issue now because the London Games are quickly approaching. Once again we (and I mean ‘we’ in the broadest sense including host societies, athletes, volunteers and spectators) have a chance to define what the Paralympics are and what they could be. I’ve seen plenty of talk recently comparing the Paralympics to the Olympics —the athletes demonstrate the same commitment to their sport and they perform equally impressive feats of strength and speed and skill. But as the clock ticks down to London I want to ask another question—what makes the Paralympics different?

Aaron 'Wheelz' prepares to do a trick on the skate ramp.

Aaron 'Wheelz' Fotheringham

Follow this link to see Josh do a back flip in a sit ski :)

Join the conversation and invite your friends!

8 thoughts on “Athletes first? Defining the Paralympic Games

  1. Perspective from the sideline: Ask any of the volunteers from the 2010 OWG and 2010 PWG if they would do it again and overwhelmingly the answer is, “I would volunteer for the PWG again but not the OWG”. The Paralympics are unique and have created their own sporting event culture.

    Are Paralympians athletes? Yes they are. Do they need to be treated like Olympians? This sounds a lot like when someone gets upset that the LPGA isn’t being treated the same as the PGA. Lady golfers are equally as talented as men golfers but yet viewership of PGA events is higher than LPGA. Consequently the purses in PGA events are also higher. The solution? The LPGA is branding/marketing itself so that it isn’t seen as a clone of the men’s game. This means they have to focus on their uniqueness and look for non-traditional golf sponsors.

    From an organizers perspective, the Paralympics benefits greatly from following the Olympics. Just think if the Paralympics came before the Olympics and all the Para-athletes had to suffer through venues that are not finished on time, staff/volunteers that are green or equipment that has not arrived yet. The public didn’t see it but there were a lot of logistical issues and disasters on the first two days of the Olympics.

    I see the grass as being greener on the Paralympic side of the fence and see no reason to be a copycat of the Olympics. Especially when you have something so uniquely special, something that is better.

    • Thanks for getting the discussion going Tony. There is actually a lot of research as to why people volunteer for mega-events like the Olympics and Paralympics – and it is repeatedly observed that volunteers at the Paralympics report more positive experiences than Olympic volunteers! I’d have to go back and double check but off the top of my head I remember the volunteers reporting they felt they could get closer to the athletes because of the smaller size of the event and that they felt like they were better able to ‘contribute’ – that they had to learn new skills in order to assist some athletes but they felt the athletes’ appreciated their assistance and that they enjoyed the opportunity to learn new things.

  2. The main question being asked here cuts to the core of most Paralympic angst…

    The Question: What is special about the Paralympics?

    The Answer (my opinion): The combination of high performance and inspirational stories.

    Let’s face it – if we, as disabled athletes, could divorce the inspirational side of the storyline, we are left with performances that in 99% of cases don’t reach the Olympic level. We have no party, we have no games, nobody but friends and family would give a $hit – cold, I know… but likely true. Even Oscar Pistorius would just be some South African guy who “might” qualify and then probably get blown away in the early rounds of the Olympic 400m event. Internationally (and likely nationally) nobody would know about him or care.

    The media is not stupid… they know what sets the Paralympics (and disabled sport generally) apart – it is the inspirational stories, and that is why they keep coming back to them time and time again. Paralympians aren’t singled out for this attention though…It’s also why the media was all over Silken Laumann, Joannie Rochette, and any athlete who has a somewhat decent story more powerful than “boy he or she is fast!”

    The “inspiration” is the Paralympic X-factor and without it the little media attention that exists would drop to zero.

    On the topic of the ceremonies – the points here are interesting, and something I hadn’t considered while watching them.

    I see where Courtney was coming from but one could look at it from a different perspective and see the following: an opening ceremony based on celebrating the participants and their disability (or “ability” as the marketing department states) it is still WAY more “athletes first” than if the content is Joni Mitchell, beavers, maple syrup etc. Also, with Terry Fox (a worldwide symbol of Canada AND disabled sport) I think the CanCon was pretty huge.

    I have always found Olympic Opening Ceremonies to be a bit overly nationalistic and not focused enough on the sporting event itself. (Aren’t we opening a sporting event not a folk festival?) I love the Olympics for the sports and always find the cultural part a tad over-the-top… Give me more backflips and athletics (like breakdancing I guess) and less wheatfields… but that’s just me probably.

    • Not just you Meyrick. I see Courtney’s point and I don’t disagree with her analysis (it stuck in my head at least – that’s why I decided I needed to write the post). But as much my inner Saskatchewanian loved the prairies scenes… the backflips were way more impressive.

      “Inspiration is the Paralympic X-factor” – Well said! I hadn’t thought of it quite that way! That’s what I love about your posts – you cut right to the heart of the matter.

      But I have to say I’ve become a little tired of the ‘human interest stories’ (and not just in relation to the Paralympics as you mention). If I had it my way they would broadcast the events 24/7 and just let us watch the athletes in action!

      • Andrea, I understand that you are tired about the ‘human interest stories’. Every athlete – Paralympic or Olympic – have inspirational stories. And if the press focus all the time only on that, there won’t be enough time for showing their performance on sport, which, as paralympic athlete, I think is for more important for me and for the Paralympic movement. Paralympics athlete want to compete on their sports and not about who have overcame more difficults to be an athlete.

        • Absolutely Vitorio! It’s not that I don’t appreciate the inspirational stories – I just hate how much time is spent on them and how little time is spent showing the sports events! If I want to find out more about an athlete I’ll google them :) But it the sport performances that i think people will find inspiring!

  3. Actually, the Paralympians are so special because it shows more intensively and explicity man’s willpower. Like the Croatia Paralympic motto: “it is what we don’t that makes us stronger.”

    • Thanks for joining the conversation Vitorio. I have to admit I didn’t know that was the Croatia Paralympic motto but I kind of like it!

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