I admire sport. I was one of the 150 million viewers that tuned in to the Olympics this past August, cheering wildly as my country defended its medal count, and as some of its most beloved athletes crushed old records.
I will also be watching the Paralympics, an event occurring alongside the Olympics. While networks like NBC have promised to show streaming coverage and commentation akin to what was done for the Olympics, I have my doubts that the Paralympics will draw the same 150 million to the television, and further, that we’ll hear the names of successful Paralympians in the newspapers as we did those of Phelps and Douglas. I’m sure that records will be broken, and yet I fear that the public won’t know.
But, as sad as I am about this potential, I know that we’ve come a long way.
Athletes with disabilities have competed in the Games since 1904 (George Eyser), and we recently saw Oscar Pistorius set the London Games on fire. Individuals with disabilities first competed in their own venue in 1948, in what was called the International Wheelchair Games, meant to coincide with the 1948 Olympics. These early competitions set the stage for the Paralympic Games, which occurred in Rome, in 1960. They’ve been continuous since then, with their own committee (the International Paralympic Committee, which works alongside the International Olympic Committee), though their popularity has never matched the Olympic Games.
The Paralympics boast many favorite sports (think rowing, athletics, volleyball, etc), and divides each of these sports into different categories to ensure fair and equal competition. I like to think of this as separating the men from the women’s competitions at the Olympics. For example, in the first 10 sport classes of an event, athletes with physical impairments will compete, with the lower class numbers indicating a more severe activity limitation. In classes 11 through 13, athletes with visual impairments will compete, and in class 14, athletes with intellectual impairments will compete. You might even compare these further classifications to how the Olympics separate weight lifters by characteristics like weight.
“Disability”, as a word, has so many meanings, depending on whether you’re looking at the term from a medical model (a physiological condition), a social model (societal forces on impairment) or even a demographic category (like race or gender). My biggest fear is that the Paralympic Games will be looked upon by some as a ‘consolation’ Olympics. I have no idea if it will be, and I hope that my fear is unfounded. If I’ve learned one thing from working for the past seven years at a recreational camp with individuals with disabilities, it’s that disability doesn’t define a person. I hope that my fellow viewers feel the same.
I am extremely excited for the Paralympic Games, especially the rowing portion (me, being a die-hard coxswain and previous-teammate of a Paralympic team coxswain).
Here’s to having another two-week celebration of two very important things: sport and remarkable people.
*Brie Stark is a scholar-elect who has been a care-provider and recreational program leader at a camp for disabilities since 2005, an advocate for disability awareness, and a co-captain and coxswain of her undergraduate college’s rowing team. She will pursue a PhD in Clinical Neuroscience at Caius College, and intends to cox for the Caius men’s rowing team this autumn. Picture credit: adysyady and Creative Commons.