Superhuman: After the Paralympics

By David Donaldson
Black and white photo of a men's wheelchair rugby match

By David Donaldson

Like many others I was fascinated by the wheelchair rugby at the Paralympics earlier this year.

As someone who is basically afraid of sport, I found this fast-paced game strangely intriguing. I realised that, despite being in some way “disabled”, the people I was watching onscreen were far fitter and stronger than I, an able-bodied person, could ever hope to be. If you haven’t seen wheelchair rugby yet, google it and you’ll quickly see why the game was originally known as murderball.

Although I had previously accepted the general notion that the Paralympics were a good thing, actually sitting down and watching some of these sports for the first time challenged my implicit assumption that they must somehow be slower or easier than the Olympics.

Insofar as any sport is a demonstration of the ability to perform well under certain restrictions (such as rules, human strength or speed, and sometimes the weather), the Paralympics offer the opportunity to see people overcoming a different set of restrictions. But far from being a mimicry of the Olympics, many Paralympic sports require a markedly different set of skills to the original game. If you placed Cristiano Ronaldo in a game of blind football, he would probably struggle.

The 2012 Paralympics in London were widely hailed as having struck a blow for equality. There seemed to be a general feeling that the Paralympics had finally made it as a respected international event. No longer are tickets to Paralympic events given away, as they were prior to 1996. This time around, organisers sold an astounding 2.5 million seats. Successful Paralympians like Oscar Pistorius and Jacqueline Freeney have become household names. A pool to be built in Adelaide will even be named after swimmer Matthew Cowdrey.

The 2012 Games saw more than 4,200 athletes from 166 countries compete in a wide range of sports. When the Paralympics started in 1960, only 400 athletes representing 23 countries took part. During the eleven days of the Games, more than 1.6 million Australians tuned in to the ABC each day to watch the coverage, an increase of around 300,000 from Beijing.

In the aftermath of the Paralympics, disability charities across Britain reported a spike in donations, with the English Federation of Disability Sport seeing a 72 per cent increase in donations on the same time the previous year. And sponsors have done well, too, with many proudly now touting their Paralympic ties, and some reporting increased business during the Games.

Part of this change seems to have come as a result of the media realising the great potential for mainstream interest in the Games. In Australia and Britain, widespread coverage helped to spark public interest, with the ABC broadcasting over 100 hours of Paralympics footage. In the United States, however, where major networks largely ignored the Paralympics, there was nowhere near the same level of public interest.

Many have suggested that the advertising blitz leading up to the Games was partly responsible for increased ratings. The highly successful ”Meet the Superhumans” video campaign, originally aired on UK television but spread around the world via Youtube, depicted the athletes in an inspiring, uplifting, and, some have said, sexy, way. Rather than the pathos and guilt often connected with disability issues, Paralympians were shown as strong and capable – and perhaps even a little futuristic.

Debates over Oscar Pistorius’ running blades, as well as the sight of advanced wheelchairs and other ability-enhancing technologies also lent the Games a certain sense of progress. They served as a reminder of the importance that such machines, when adapted for daily life and made widely accessible, have in improving the quality of life for many people.

As Will Norman pointed out in the Guardian, the Paralympic Games presented a kind of utopian version of disability, in which everyone had a job and was appreciated for their effort. Of course, this is not the case for people with a disability in broader society, who have poorer health, employment and general quality of life outcomes than the rest of the community.

But it does show us how much of a difference a positive approach to disability issues can make. Stella Young has written about the need for visible role models across all areas of the community, and the Paralympics can provide a great platform for enabling that to happen.