The façade of the Paralympic games is known to inspire and excite athletes, coaches, spectators alike (Wolbring, 2012). The games have been paramount in changing attitudes surrounding disability through the promotion of inclusion and the celebration of impairment (Gold and Gold, 2007). Recent developments within the Paralympic movement can be attributed to both technological and cultural advances within society. This paper will critically discuss the positives and negatives effects of these conditions and evaluate their impact on our contemporary moment. What does the future hold for disability and Paralympic progression (Wolbring, 2012).
Through the effects of globalisation, caused through the advancement of technology, the world is now better connected. Thus, allowing for athletes, brands and companies to be recognised all over the globe. As described by Arthur (2012), the London Paralympics saw the sponsorship and promotion of Paralympians become mainstream. This may be due society’s slowly developing outlook on disability sport, but also due to the benefits this entails. By pulling on heartstrings and sharing the stories of these “inspirational” disabled athletes, companies achieve powerful brand and marketing benefits (Wynn, 2012).
It is important to not only analyse the level of media coverage given, but also to delve further and be critical, to assess the way Paralympians are represented and displayed. A study conducted by Pappous, Marcellini and Leseleuc in 2011, compared the media coverage of the Sydney Paralympic games in 2000 to the Bejiing games in 2008. The study showed that in the Sydney coverage, around 60% of athletes were depicted in action rather than being passive, not only highlighting the competitiveness of the athletes, but these images also clearly depicted the impairments of the athletes. However, the proportion of active depictions decreased substantially in Bejiing (2008), with only 38% of the photographs illustrated athletes in action, with little focus on the athlete’s disability. This “decreased visibility of disability” in a way may be construed as progress for Paralympic sport (Depauw, 1997). This coverage focuses on the athletes sporting success rather than their impairment, however the decrease in action shots implies a step backwards as these athletes feel they deserve to be recognised and represented for their sporting performance parallel to their Olympic counterparts, rather than being focused on due to their disability (Pappous, Marcellini and Leseleuc, 2011).
On the other hand, the growth of the Paralympic movement over recent years can be attributed to the Olympic reform by the IOC 2000 Commission, which resulted in societal and political changes at national and international level (Pappous, Marcellini and Leseleuc, 2011). Due to countries hosting the Olympic and now Paralympic games, in order to achieve “publicity, profit and pride”, there is a dormant social and political benefits attached. This is displayed through the meteoric rise of media coverage by both Greece and Britain in accordance to their Olympic and Paralympic bids (Pappous, Marcellini and Leseleuc, 2011). Discourse concerned with elite sport is predominantly targeted around momentous events and sporting heroes in an effort to develop the sports business industry through sponsorship, explaining the supercrip account of Paralympians (Cashmore, 2010).
This development in technology has also led to advancements in technological equipment for disabled athletes, which has created an acceptance in regards to modifying the human body (Bostrom 2003). This area of developing technology has been harder for society to swallow, although it has become apparent that change may be perceivable, in small doses. As described by Oliver (1990) “western construction of disability is an individual medalistic problem, which enables society at large to firmly control the members of disabled communities”.
Oscar Pistorius, famously took part in the London 2012 Olympics, against “able bodied” athletes (BBC Sport, 2012). Through the concept of post humanism, whereby beings whose capabilities exceed that of humans, Pistorius’s shows how ‘humanness’ can be altered or extended by technology (Bostrom, 2003). Nicknamed “techno-doping”, these disabled athletes, labelled as supercrips, have the capability to outperform “able bodied” athletes through the use of prosthesis or other technology (Wolbring, 2012). This poses the question: when the combination of technology and athletes occurs, can this lead to the “posthuman games” or a “separate-lympics”, where by the games become a show of technology rather than athletic prowess for anyone to compete in (Wolbring, 2008).
The spread of communication through the process of globalisation has resulted in changing societal attitudes. Disability sport, the Paralympics and advancing body enhancing technology has become more familiar, and therefore socially acceptable. There is a heightened focus on achievement rather than impairment, once again suggesting this concept of empowerment and thus challenging common stereotypes about disability (Gold and Gold, 2007).
However, this notion of empowerment is not always so simple. The “supercrip” narrative for example demonstrates the low social expectations given to the disabled by society and demonstrates how we praise those for positive achievement due to inaccurate assumptions, perpetuating low expectations of disabled people (Silva and Howe, 2012). As explored by Purdue and Howe (2012), empowerment through the Paralympic movement is not achievable for everyone involved. As with “able-bodied” people, sport is not for everyone, and therefore Paralympic sport is not necessarily the correct platform for empowerment for disabled people. Rather empowerment is more likely to be achieved by personal achievement, by a disabled person being about to have control over their own lives and live without aid (Wallerstein, 1992).
Heightened focus on certain disciplines can also negatively affect others. For many it is about what is comfortable for the public, what is profitable for companies. It is brutally obvious that not all disabilities are regarded and treated equally, both within and outside of sport (Gold and Gold, 2007).
In order for the Paralympic movement to advance and progress, the increased media coverage will increasingly influence and change dominant cultural and social values, thus leading to a more successful, accepted and engaged games (Howe, 2011). Although this developing technology may empower certain athletes, access is limited to certain countries, athletes and disciplines, mainly western society, resulting in disempowerment and in turn creating a cyclical, hierarchical situation, where an elite group is formed. This creates a situation where people may start aspiring to be a certain type of disabled. There is a certain irony in the fact that the strive for equality has inversely created inequality, and technology such as prosthetics are not just associated with an impairment, but are now often desirable (Miller, Parker and Gillinson, 2004.; Howe, 2011).