Paralympic Woes

Rio 2016 Paralympic Games logo

Paralympics dramatically scaled back due to budget crisis
Marissa Payne, Washington Post - August 19, 2016

Budget shortfall forces major Paralympics cutbacks
Stephanie Nolan, Globe and Mail - August 20, 2016

Rio Paralympics 2016: Games to go ahead with major budget cuts
BBC, Disability Sport - August 20, 2016

I'm not sure what to think about the budget shortfall and planned scale-backs of the Paralympic Games in Rio. It seems like an outgrowth of corruption problems in Brazil. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Paralympics are going to suffer as a side effect of some possibly just and noble efforts within Brazil to crack down on corruption. I want the Paralympics to be fully funded, but I'm not sure it would be good for Brazil if this happens through personal intervention from Mayors and Interim Presidents who are themselves under scrutiny for corruption. At any rate, the pros and cons of that are up to Brazilians.

More importantly, all this is only to address a funding shortfall that seems to have been caused by poor ticket sales. Is this the same shortfall we've seen in just about every Olympic event in Rio so far, held in quarter-to-half empty venues? Or, is it worse because even fewer people want to buy tickets to see Paralympic events?

If that's the case, why exactly? Is it the obvious answer ... that non-disabled people generally don't think of Paralympics sports as "real" in the way Olympic Track & Field and Swimming are? If that’s the case, I’ve got to wonder after watching BMX racing, golf, and ping-pong presented as “regular” Olympic sports. Are Paralympics considered "lesser" events? How well do most people even understand what the Paralympics are? I am an active part of the disability community, but last time I wrote about the Paralympics I got comments that showed me how little actually I knew about them.

We'll see how the events actually play out next month. Maybe it will be really cool. Maybe the publicity about budget shortfalls and cutbacks will raise interest in the Paralympics. Maybe some private benefactors will step up at the last minute.

In the meantime, it seems like the main takeaway is that once again, when things get hard and choices have to be made, the disability-related thing is left with the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

Maybe a merger IS the answer.

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

Final Thoughts On The 2014 Paralympics

Alice Robb, The New Republic - March 17, 2014

I found this article in The New Republic fascinating. I think it is possible that the premise is true … that most disabled people either don’t care about the Paralympics or actively despise them. Unfortunately, the study cited to support the idea has a few problems:

1. It is British, so I wonder if Americans feel the same way.

2. It is based on a poll done in 2011, 3 years before these most recent Winter Paralympics, and a year before the last Summer Paralympics.

3. The survey was confined to “32 disability activists in the U.K.” Disability activists are always going to be disproportionately attuned to media stereotyping, and their general outlook probably isn't a good indicator of what disabled people in general find interesting or fun.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mind any of this, and the results are interesting in any case. I wonder, though, whether the country and timing are keys to the findings.

In 2011, Britain was soaked in Olympics hype. And my understanding is that the U.K. media really hyped the rather dubious notion that the Paralympics would serve a social purpose … that they would change society’s attitude towards disabled people. If I was a disability activist inundated by such promises from the non-disabled media, I think I would be dismissive of the Paralympics, too. That doesn’t necessarily say much about the Paralympics themselves. As a sports event, they are hard to argue with. It’s when people try to make them mean something to the disability community that things get sketchy.

The survey respondents’ comments make sense to me as anticipated problems from three years ago. They expected coverage to be condescending. They worried that the athletes would be held up as “super crips”. I'm not sure about the 2012 Summer Paralympics, but I don’t think this is how the 2014 Winter Paralympics turned out. Personally, I found coverage of the Winter Paralympics in Sochi to be surprisingly light on mawkishness. As I wrote a few days ago, I think if anything, NBC and NBC Sports’ Paralympic coverage was less sentimental than its coverage of the Olympics.

I do give credit to the article’s author, Alice Robb on one point. The article is the only place I have seen a mainstream journalist refer to the “super crip” idea, or the notion that there might be something condescending about coverage of a disability sports event. These are real concerns that most people aren’t even aware of, and it’s good to have them raised here.

It seems to me, though, that the reason disabled people don’t watch the Paralympics is the same likely reason most people don’t watch … because we don’t know when they are on. The "regular" Olympics are on for hours at a stretch, day after day. You don’t have to plan your watching. Just turn on the TV at roughly the same times each day, and you’ll see the Olympic sports of some kind. With the Paralympics, you have to schedule your viewing. And if you forget for awhile, and tune in a half hour late for whatever event is on, you have missed half of the coverage for the whole day. I ended up watching less than half of the events I fully intended to watch, mainly due to getting involved in other activities, and just plain forgetfulness. If people had to plan their Olympics viewing to hit one-hour time slots in the early afternoons, their ratings would plummet.

That’s why I’m intrigued by one of the suggestions in this article … merging the Paralympics with the Olympics. It would probably be a logistical nightmare, but I love the idea of Paralympic events simply being added to the Olympic Games. I think it would raise interest in Paralympics sports overall. I wonder if it’s a serious idea under discussion?

No, disabled people aren’t all fanatical Paralympics fans. We don’t get all teary and feel super empowered watching sled hockey … no more than anyone else does watching a good hockey game. There are philosophical reasons to be skeptical of the whole thing. Yet, we do get a little bit of a thrill … just a spark maybe … seeing people we can identify with in a very specific way competing in an elite sporting event. That’s the crucial factor to me. The Paralympics don’t feel like a therapeutic activity with the formal trappings of high performance, competitive sports. The Paralympics are authentic sports, full stop. What I took away from the Winter Paralympics coverage is that while a few commentators tried to view them as some sort of rehab program, the athletes ensured that label just didn’t stick. What the U.S. and Russian sled hockey teams were doing out there was not an "activity", and the U.S. and Canadian teams were basically at war.

With better scheduling, I think the disability community could really embrace the Paralympics, come 2016 in Rio.

Another Rant On Positivity

Ideas topic icon

'Dancing With the Stars' Amy Purdy Says 'Only True Disability Is in Our Minds’

Michael Rothman, ABC Good Morning America - March 17, 2014

Oh dear, oh dear.

“Only true disability is in our minds”. Not this again!

During the Winter Paralympics, Amy Purdy was one of the handful of highlighted athletes, and one of I think only two who had ads made around them and played in heavy rotation. She seemed pretty cool to me, and never said anything cliché or superficial about being a double leg amputee snowboarder. The “feel good” aspect of her story as she told it was mainly her love of snowboarding, which caused her to keep asking doctors during her hospital stay, when she could snowboard again. That was a very individual thing about Amy Purdy, and not some non-specific brand of positivity applied to all disabled people.

Which is why I was so disappointed to see this platitude attributed to her. So, I read the article, and I don’t see anywhere in it where Purdy actually says that the only true disability is in our minds. Mostly she says positive but grounded things I can’t argue with, including recognizing the fact that on “Dancing With The Stars”, she will be the novice and will have to learn from her partner. In the Duracell ad embedded in the article, she says, ""When disease took my legs, I eventually realized I didn't need them to lead a full, empowering life.” That’s quite a different thing to say and a lot more meaningful than, “The only true disability is in our minds”.

Did she say it or not? Or, was it something a headline writer had rattling around in his or her brain and just threw out there?

Why do I care?

First of all, it is simply not true. When you are a double leg amputee, it is not true that the only disability is in your mind.

As I have written before, having a defeatist or lazy mindset can certainly be an additional disability, and a positive attitude may be a prerequisite to success, but missing two legs is a disability in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, but it is a thing, not a state of mind.

As I expect Amy Purdy would agree.

Second, this kind of dime store spirituality is a pet peeve of mine. On the one hand, it’s a meaningless platitude … well-meant and probably harmless. On the other hand, it connects with a very definite ideology that some find therapeutic, but I think does harm in the long run. This is the idea that actual, physical, concrete circumstances can be overcome by the proper mental attitude. No income and no job? Resolve that you deserve your dream job, think positively about it every day, and it will happen. Have a serious physical impairment? If you don’t think like a disabled person, then nothing can stand in your way.

The real harm comes with the converse. Disabled people who aren’t successful have their own attitude to blame. They've given up. They're too angry. They obsess over their condition and what they have lost. They use their disability as a "crutch". However it's phrased, it is the disability version of victim blaming.

Maybe this is a twisted way of reading a nice idea. Maybe it’s never intended to be a back-handed scold. Trust me, though, when you are disabled and faced with multiple intractable barriers, especially external ones, while a successful disabled person says that success is all about attitude? The message comes through loud and clear.

Again, attitude is important. It is a factor, and can either empower you or create additional problems for you. But perhaps more than any other “disadvantage”, disability does insist on itself. You can’t regrow a limb through determination. Spinal cords are not regenerated through daily affirmation. Disability exacts a price. For many of us, the price is manageable. For some, the price changes from day to day, month to month. For others, the price is very high, and it takes positivity, and adaptation, and cooperation, and a more just society to cope.

If Amy Purdy really said “The only true disability is in our minds", I hope at some point we can know the context. Among elite athletes, everyone has roughly equivalent physical gifts … even disabled athletes. In athletics, mental attitude really can make the difference between victory and defeat ... between a medal and anonymity. But that’s why disability sports are tremendously fun and exciting, but of limited teaching value in terms of most of our everyday lives. Snowboarding on two prosthetic legs is pretty amazing, but it requires a very different set of skills and personal qualities than landing a good job when you wheel into your interview. It is tempting to make comparisons, but we should be careful about it.

In the end, whether Purdy said this or not, the sad thing is that she said so many other great, insightful things that would have made much better headlines. It seems like most journalists have an unerring instinct for latching onto the most comforting, optimistic, simplistic things disabled people say. The fact that it often happens to be bullshit doesn’t seem to matter.

Winter Paralympics Results

Paralympics logo
And the top 3 countries are:

1. Russia
2. Germany
3. Canada

The United States came in 8th place.

This doesn’t quite convey the whole story, because Russia’s first place is by miles. They won 30 gold medals. The next highest, Germany, won only 9 golds, and on down from there. I don’t know much about the development of Paralympic sports, but the result does baffle me. Is it just because Russia could send more athletes tan anyone else, do the Russians devote more resources to Paralympic sports? It’s remarkable when you consider the fact that in 1980, when the Soviet Union hosted the Summer Olympics, they declined to host the Summer Paralympics as well. Was that a reflection of how Russians at that time viewed disabled people? Have disabled peoples’ status in Russian culture improved that much since?

And, for all our supposed leadership in disability matters, the US seems to have underperformed. Is this one of those instances where we just assume we’re ahead of the curve, only to find out that lots of other countries have quietly progressed further than us?

I will certainly be paying closer attention to the next Paralympics … the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Sled Hockey Final: USA 1 - Russia 0

Congratulations to Team USA! It was an exciting game. And props to the Russian team that won a Silver only 4 years after establishing a team. A few more notes:

- I suppose he’s too busy messing around with Crimea, but I think it’s kind of an insult that Vladimir Putin didn’t come, at least to the Medal Ceremony, and sent his deputy instead. I wonder if Putin harbors old-style disability prejudice?

- The Paralympic-related ads were all very good, but there were only like 3 or 4 different ones that have been running in very heavy rotation. For the next Paralympics, they need more sponsors to make more different ads.

- It’s excellent that in the Medal Ceremony, some of the guys are in their wheelchairs, some are still in their sleds, while others are standing … I presume they are amputees wearing prosthetics. It’s a nice reminder that wheelchair users aren’t the only disabled people. The play by play commentator also mentioned during the game that some players are amputees, some paraplegics, and some have lifelong conditions like spina bifida.