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.”
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  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?