Looking Ahead To The 2016 Paralympics

Rio 2016 Paralympics Games, with multicolored logo comprised of an abstract rearrangement of traditional Olympic rings

The 2016 Summer Paralympic Games will be held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in September, a little over two weeks after the Summer Olympic Games in Rio end.

NBC Sports will air 66 hours of Paralympics coverage, a huge increase over the six or so hours of coverage they did during the 2012 Paralympics in London, and a fair amount more than the 50 hours of coverage they broadcast during the 2012 Winter Paralympics in Sochi. I don't get cable TV anymore, so I'm not sure how I'm going to see any of this. I am hoping NBC might sell some short-term access to web coverage or something.

I constantly puzzle over what to make of the Paralympics. My instinct is to prefer it by a very wide margin over the Special Olympics, for a bunch of reasons I hope aren't too ableist. I think I prefer the Paralympics because it's closer to a pure sports competition, while the Special Olympics have the look of athletics, but also a second-tier therapeutic goal that doesn't seem to be there in the Paralympics. Also, the Special Olympics still seems to be mainly a creature of non-disabled families and caregivers, while the Paralympics at least feels like an event run by disabled athletes themselves. While the organizational origins come from rehabilitation, it has long since become just another sports organization, not a an athletic outgrowth of a therapeutic mission.

Both organizations celebrate sportsmanship, cultural exchange, and the inherent honor of athletic effort and participation. But Special Olympics seems to downplay the competition part, while the Paralympics embrace it. From a sports fan perspective, and a disabled person's perspective, (at least this disabled person), that's crucial.

This is where I start to smell the ableism, in the organizations but also in myself. The casual observer would probably say that it's appropriate for Special Olympics to downplay cutthroat competition and instead emphasize joy and participation, because it's mainly for people with intellectual disabilities. The Paralympics, on the other hand, is for people with physical disabilities, who are generally seen as more like "normal" people, apart from their specific impairments, so they're more capable or resilient or something. Nobody wants to see a runner with Down Syndrome in inconsolable tears after losing a 300 m relay, but seeing one of a dozen wheelchair racers cry after coming in 10th probably seems less upsetting.

I think that's the crux of the difference. But does it hold up to clear-headed analysis, stripped of ableist assumptions?

Why can't a runner with Down Syndrome also be truly, measurably, Olympics-grade fast? If an Autistic person can learn how to row really well, why should we studiously refuse to note who wins and who loses a rowing race? Maybe the Paralympics and Special Olympics should merge. For that matter, why isn’t wheelchair racing a “regular” Olympic sport, open to anyone? Does an able-bodied person really have an inherent advantage over a paraplegic, when both of them are racing in comparable wheelchairs? I honestly don’t know, but it might be something to consider. Something like this debate actually started back in 2012, when Oscar Pistorius ran standard Olympic track races with his prosthetic "blade" leg, which some people believed gave him an unfair advantage over racers with two “normal” legs.

Maybe that's one of the benefits of these sorts of events. They encourage all of us to think critically about categorizations of ability and identity we tend to take for granted. Of course, they're also really cool events, especially for people who like watching sports we don’t get to see very often.

Here are some links to get ready for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio:

Rio 2016 Paralympics

Rio 2016 Paralympics Team USA

Paralympics - NBC Sports

Paralympics Impressions
Disability Thinking - March 13, 2014

Final Thoughts On The 2014 Paralympics
Disability Thinking - March 18, 2014