The Paralympics is more popular than ever – but what’s it for?

In recent years there’s been a noticeable leap in interest about the Paralympics. EPA/Tal Cohen

The Paralympics has become more prominent in recent times than ever before. Although it was first held in Rome 1960 — drawing inspiration from the 1948 British Stoke Mandeville Games for Paraplegics — the Paralympics only achieved significant global notice after being twinned with the Olympic Games from 1988.

Since then, the Paralympics have been held in the same city as the Olympics, making use of the same venues.

An Olympic endorsement proved a huge boost for the Paralympics, adding its status and legitimacy. The timing of the Paralympics, two to three weeks after the Olympics, is also auspicious. By then, people have recovered from the surfeit of Olympic sport and are ready for another sporting festival.

The Olympic relationship has enabled the Paralympics to surge ahead of the two other global sporting festivals for people with a disability: the older, established Deaflympics, which was first held in 1924, and the Special Olympics which began in 1968.

Growing the Games

New benchmarks have been set for almost every Paralympic Games from 1988, in terms of the number of athletes attending (from 3,053 in 1988 to 4,200 in 2012), nations represented (from 62 to 161) and accredited media (from 1,672 to around 4,000). There are no accurate figures on attendances from 1988 to 1996 because admittance was largely free.

Gate entry was first charged for all events at the Sydney Paralympics in 2000 when 1,159,249 people attended. Nearly all of the 2.5m tickets for the London Paralympics have been sold.

London will undoubtedly set new benchmarks as Britain is the home of Paralympic sport and also one of the stronger countries for Paralympic sport. The level of support for the London Paralympics will be something to watch.

An even more intriguing thing to observe is the media coverage of the Games because the media (and the public as well) have only a loose (and even vague) idea of the meaning and purpose of the Paralympics.

Understanding the Paralympics

The complexity of Paralympic sport, first of all, is difficult for the public to grasp. There are six different categories of athletes: wheelchair, amputee, cerebral palsy, visually impaired, athletes with intellectual disability and les autres (the others).

The public finds it easier to comprehend wheelchair sports, such as basketball, because it appears athletes compete on a level playing field. This is not the case because players on each team are required to have a differing range of functional ability.

Classification remains the greatest challenge in the delivery of Paralympic sport in that it is both complex and generally baffling to the public. Whereas there is only one men’s and one’s women’s 100m Olympic track final, there are potentially 20 for each gender in the Paralympics. The challenge for the organisers is to better explain the purpose of classification better.

Paralympics representation

The Paralympic Games are even more western-centric than the Olympic Games with the big medal-winners traditionally coming from affluent western countries such as the USA, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, France, Canada and the Netherlands.

Support for people with a disability is relatively weak in a number of African, Asian and Latin American countries. But some of the more affluent Asian countries, such as China and Japan, have made great strides in the last two Games with China heading the medal tally in 2004 and 2008. It will be interesting to observe whether a wider range of countries secure a greater share of the medals in London.

In the past the media have perpetuated many myths about the Paralympics and people with a disability. Athletes have been irked in the past by references they are brave and courageous in overcoming adversity – if you are born with a disability you know no other state.

‘Supercrip’

The “supercrip” myth suggests elite athletes with disabilities can overcome any obstacle by their superhuman efforts. By implication, anyone with a disability can play sport or surmount a physical challenge if only they try. The supercrip stereotype suggests the disability community as a whole should follow suit and “take up their bed and walk”.

The perpetuation of such myths raises the related question of whether the Paralympics creates greater awareness of the needs of the wider (non-sporting) disability community. Or does it generate resentment between the sporting “haves” and the non-sporting “have-nots” who resent all the resources being devoted to a small section of the disability community?

The Paralympics is a fascinating sporting festival in that its central purpose is a matter of debate. There is an ongoing discussion about whether the Paralympics exists to display the wide range of disability sports or whether it is a spectacle of elite sport.

The Paralympics is likely to increase in size and popularity in the future, not least because new sports are being featured (such as wheelchair basketball and rugby), extend the groups of people involved in high-profile sport.