I have not been watching the Paralympics, not because I do not have admiration for our athletes, but simply because I have never enjoyed watching any kind of sport. I have always enjoyed taking part in a range of sports, knowing I may not be good at it as it is about having fun for me.
Since London 2012, and Channel 4 making a greater effort to televise the event, the Paralympics has been portrayed as a celebration of athletes with impairments. The use of ‘body beautiful’ imagery to promote the games has been divisive, causing vocal resentment from those with impairments who do not fit this media-fuelled excitement.
However, behind the razzmatazz and ‘coolness’ of the games, the Paralympics is just a sporting event. The game’s past shows the real original purpose of the games was a tool to manage people with impairments in a very different era.
The games are a British invention and were originally just for people with spinal injuries, where now it is for all people with a physical impairment. This fact is made clear because the birthplace of the games is Stoke Mandeville, connected to the hospital of the same name, which is one of the leading spinal injury units in the UK. As well as a well-equipped sports centre, the complex still has the first Paralympic village, which was a very institutional place when I visited it in the 1990s.
In the 1960s and 70s, impairment was a much bigger taboo, and people with impairments had far fewer opportunities. Rehabilitation was the keyword and people with spinal injuries would spend months in a hospital, followed most likely by a lifetime in residential care with no opportunity to be fully included in society.
So how could the professionals keep these unwanted of society occupied; sport? This form of rehabilitation was the real birth of the games, a form of distraction for those unfit for society. While things in the UK may have changed, this attitude and practice may still exist in other countries, where attitudes towards impairment are less developed.
Behind the scenes, the games are still dominated by non-impaired officials, coaches and so on. It is also worth noting, without undermining the achievements of athletes, that the route from grass roots disability sport to the Paralympics is shorter than mainstream sport, because there are fewer people competing, and because of the impairment-specific classification system. This means athletes with impairments are more likely to reach the top of their game.
Even now with British Paralympians, for many young people with impairments, their sporting career can be an only few years gap between the realities of needing a longer term career, etc., as competitive sports are mostly a young person’s game for the most part.
The Paralympics may be currently hailed as the blueprint for people with impairments place in modern society, but underneath the covers of its new fashionableness than you will see that it is a symbol of segregation and the power non-impaired people still have over people with impairments, even when it is not so obvious.