by STELLA YOUNG
Every four years when the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics make their way into our lounge rooms, we have an old, familiar conversation.
People suddenly get taken with this idea that we should run both events at the same time, and if we did that then disabled people would be equal. It’s as though they notice disability inequality for the first time, and they are outraged, dammit. “People with disabilities are just as important!” they cry. “They shouldn’t be treated as second class citizens!”
Funny how so many of these people who sit up and take note of disability inequality through the lens of sport manage to ignore it for the four years in between. Funny too is the way these people latch on to this “new idea” as though they’re the first ones to ever have it.
Punch intern Samuel Clench last week posed the question of why we can’t run both events together.
“If it’s possible to bring disabled athletes into the Olympics, and it is, then there is no question that it should be done.”
It would seem to me that there are, in fact, some questions. What about the question of how Paralympians and other athletes with disabilities feel about the games? Those on the inside of the show should get a say, surely.
Expert commentator and retired Paralympic athlete Heath Francis disagrees with Clench that it would better to run both events together.
“The Paralympics are all about us; we would be lost in the background of the Olympics,” Francis says.
“The Paralympics is a stand-alone event and we don’t need to be part of another event to make us valued or watchable. Not to mention the logistics of holding both events at once. It would just be impossible.”
When we hear athletes say there’s nothing like the Paralympics, they don’t just mean the competition. Last Tuesday I popped into the athlete’s village and what I found absolutely took my breath away. Or, more accurately, I felt a familiar kind of release in my chest, one that I’ve felt before at disability conferences and events. It can only really be described as the moment you realise you’re in an environment where you can truly be yourself; the feeling of being among your people, if you will.
Perhaps Kurt Fearnley put it best when he tweeted a photo of the Paralympic dining hall, accompanied by the caption:
“Paralympic dining hall: Disabilities as far as the eye can see and not a staring face in the joint. #AcceptanceHeaven.”
Acceptance heaven, indeed. What I felt in the athlete’s village on Tuesday is enough to make me want to find myself a sport, or at least a way to participate in the Paralympics. (I wonder if the APC needs a team knitter?)
The sense of camaraderie and community in the village and among the athletes in general is just one of the things that would be lost if we ran both events together. It has become even clearer this time around that the Paralympics provide opportunities for the disability rights movement that no other event does. Where else have we seen three hours of television dedicated to celebrating disability and disabled artists like we did on Thursday morning when the Paralympics Opening Ceremony was broadcast? Where else have we seen 80,000 people pack a stadium to watch something like that live?
The Paralympics make disability visible.
Let’s not forget that the Paralympics, just like the Olympics, are built on a rich history. From humble beginnings at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948, where 16 injured war veterans competed at the same time as the 1948 Olympic Games, to London 2012 with 4,200 competitors from 165 countries. The Paralympic Games are bigger and better than ever before.
Clench claims that the Paralympics are staged “weeks after the Olympics have ended, when public excitement has abated and most of the media pack has left.” It’s true that the Olympics media pack has left. They had to make room for the Paralympics media pack. Working from the International Broadcast Centre with the ABC Sport team is thrilling. I don’t know what the vibe was like at the Olympics, but there is no shortage of enthusiasm, professionalism and passion among the team that’s bringing you the 120 hours of Paralympics coverage on Australian television. It is not an afterthought. The excitement has not abated.
If people have “stopped caring” as Clench suggests, then I’m afraid there are about 2.4 million ticket-holders who didn’t get that memo. The 11.2 million people who tuned into the opening ceremony just in the UK alone, delivering Channel 4’s highest ratings in 10 years, obviously didn’t get it either.
Back home in Australia there’s certainly no lack of interest. Coverage of Day One reached 1.8 million viewers, while the first evening show on ABC2 doubled its regular audience share and has built since.
Too often we fall into the trap of thinking equal means the same, and that we achieve equality by treating everyone identically. We only have to look at what happened during the Olympic and Paralympic swimming trials back in March. They were held at the same event, and our Paralympic hopefuls swam in the ad breaks. Strangely, Clench uses this example in his article to justify integration of athletes. Really it’s a lesson in “tried that, didn’t work.”
Of course, funding for the Paralympics should be on par with the Olympics. Perhaps another way to increase the gravitas of the Paralympics would be to alternate where they fall in relation to the Olympic Games. One year the Olympics go first, four years later the Paralympics do. For the athletes, I don’t think it matters too much. What counts is the Paralympic spirit and the chance to compete at an elite level and to celebrate who they are, both as people with disabilities and as athletes.
In fact, Heath Francis thinks the way we currently run things is a winning formula.
“With us following the Olympics there’s a two week gap that allows the spotlight to refocus on us,” he says.
“If we were to go before the Olympics, all the interest would still be on the upcoming Olympics. We don’t need the Paralympics to go first to legitimise us.” (post continues after gallery)
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The sentiment of those suggesting the Olympics and Paralympics be combined is no doubt well intentioned. But it also echoes the myth that disabled people want to be other than what we are – that we’d like nothing more than to be “allowed in” with the able-bodied competitors.
In fact, Paralympic sport and other disability sport can and should be celebrated in its own right.
Oscar Pistorius’ Olympic and Paralympic success is not a lesson in why the games should be integrated, as many people claim. It’s merely a lesson in why the Olympics should not exclude those who can qualify to compete. Indeed, Pistorius isn’t the first athlete with a disability to compete in the Olympics. A number of disabled athletes have competed in Olympic sports such as Archery, Fencing, Swimming and Table Tennis, starting with Neroli Fairhall in 1984.
Pistorius’ Olympic wins don’t negate his Paralympic success, and he is equally proud of both labels.
“I’m as proud to be a Paralympian as I am an Olympian,” he says.
“I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of. I don’t think [Olympic and Paralympic integration] will ever happen and I don’t think it’ll ever need to.”
We get so few opportunities to publicly and raucously celebrate our community and the amazing contributions people with disabilities make. The Paralympics are ours. Hands off.
Stella Young is a disability activist, comedian, knitter and the Editor of Ramp Up, the ABC’s online space for news, opinion and discussion of disability issues. You can follow her on twitter here.