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Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Paralympic Problem

Almost everyone I know applied for (and mostly failed to get, but that is a different story...) tickets for the London 2012 Olympics. But I am the only person I know who applied for tickets for the London 2012 Paralympics. On Saturday September 1st I am taking my family to see athletics, 5-a-side football, table tennis and wheelchair basketball at the Olympic Park in Stratford. I am looking forward to watching elite sportspeople compete at the highest levels. I am also looking forward to showing my children that disability is not a barrier to sporting achievement, and that the human body is an incredibly beautiful machine in all its forms.. But I am not looking forward to the moment when they ask me why the Paralympics is not as popular or important as the Olympics.  Why, in Trafalgar Square, is the clock counting down to the Paralympics a little bit less impressive than the one counting down to the Olympics? Why will there be not quite as much coverage of the Paralympics on television? Why are their schoolmates unimpressed by the news that Raffy and Zak are going to see paralympic athletics?

I am faced with a problem. I love the idea of the Paralympics: there is no doubt that it promotes disability awareness and gives athletes who could not otherwise the opportunity to compete in an elite sporting environment. But is the rigid segregation between able-bodied and disabled helpful here? I am worried that having an overtly separate sporting event encourages the general public to see the Paralympics (and thus its athletes and then disabled people generally) as second-best sportspeople and second-class citizens. The first incarnation of the Paralympic Games was the International Wheelchair Games which took place at Stoke Manderville in 1948 to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics. Now that the Paralympics has become an established part of the Olympic calendar, perhaps it is time, in this year when the Olympics and the Paralympics return to Britain, to rethink their relationship with each other.

Why not run the Olympic and Paralympic events alongside each other, on the same day and in front of the same crowd? Better yet, why not let Olympic and Paralympic sportspeople compete together? South African 400m runner Oscar Pistorius has qualified (some say controversially) for a place in the 2012 Olympics. What about encouraging others to do the same? What would basketball look like if it was played by a mixture of able-bodied and wheelchair athletes? How would football change if blind and sighted players were on the pitch together? Or, why not blindfold ALL the players and see what would happen then?

**UPDATE** 28th Agusut 2012: on the eve of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony, these comments by Pistorius illustrate the changing relationship between the Olympics and the Paralympics.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the general public do not seem to take the Paralympics seriously, is a perception that it must be easier to qualify as a Paralympic athlete than an Olympic one. Unfortunately my only direct experience of disabled sport bears this preconception out. When I was 13 I was quite a fast runner. I wasn't good enough to compete for the school but I could do a pretty respectable 100m. Despite being only above average at running in school, I was deemed good enough to qualify for and compete in a nationwide Disabled Games at Stoke Manderville. I remember that I was the only person competing in my particular category, and that even though I did nothing like my fastest time, I still won a gold medal. I felt odd about this situation at the time and now I think I know why. I was a good athlete, but not a great one. I didn't deserve this medal. Had I not been registered blind, I certainly would not have won it. I think the powers-that-be were taking over-compensation a little bit too far by rewarding me in this way. Perhaps the Paralympic games would be taken more seriously if its selection criteria were more demanding. I would rather come last in a race with other able-bodied athletes than first in a race that I am the only one running.

I recently heard about a young blind athlete who is competing against her able-bodied peers with her guide dog. I'm sure that if she were running in events for the blind, Sami Stoner would win all the time. But this article suggests that it makes much more sense to see Sami as a runner who happens to have a disability, rather than as a disabled runner.

Annoyingly, this article occasionally falls into the trap of negativising disability. By saying: 'Stone is legally blind but competes...' and 'approaching life with uncommon verve despite her disability...', the writer suggests that her blindness is a hindrance to be got over or struggled against. Surely Sami is good enough to compete for her school because she has the stamina and discipline of a cross-country runner. Probably her uncommon verve comes from her personality, her upbringing and her parents' genes. But despite its flaws, this article is important because it gives a vision of what an Olympic race could look like. I hope I can get tickets for the Olympics the year that blind athletes with guide dogs first run alongside their sighted peers.

With thanks to Michael Gratzke for telling me about Sami.

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