Wellbeing & Fitness

Disability inclusion: should the Olympics and Paralympics be merged?

On 24th August 2021, the Opening Ceremony of the long-awaited 2020 Paralympic Games took place in Tokyo. Between then and the closing ceremony on the 5th September 2021, 4,400 athletes are expected to take part in 540 events, across 22 sports.

No one could argue that these are not impressive figures. However, behind the headlines, there is still the divide that remains between disabled athletes and their able-bodied compatriots. The latter have competed, had their moment of sporting glory, and returned home, at least two weeks before the Paralympic opening ceremony begins.

Our Sales and Partnerships Manager Joanna, a champion for inclusion and owner of Diversity Designs, explores the issues that keep the sporting achievements of athletes with impairments on the edge of inclusion in the sporting world.

A short history of the Paralympics

To place the issues in context, first, a short history of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Olympic Games have their origins in ancient Greece, some 3,000 years ago.

From the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D., the Games were held every four years in Olympia, to honour the King of the Greek gods, Zeus. The advance of the Roman Empire conquered Greece in the second century B.C., signifying the demise of the Games. The competition was banned as a pagan festival in A.D. 393.

1,500 years later, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, out of his personal interest in sport, founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the now governing body of the modern Olympic Games. The first “modern” Games was held in 1896, in Athens. 280 participants from 12 nations competed in 43 events.

Over the last 125 years, many more countries have joined the Olympic movement, participation has increased, and sports and events have been added and removed from the programme. The result is the diverse and packed competition we saw at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

In contrast, sport for athletes with impairments (para-athletes) is a relatively new phenomenon, having existed for just over 100 years. The first sports clubs for people with hearing impairments were founded in Berlin in the 1880s.

Participation did not increase until after World War II. Engaging disabled people in sport was only done to assist the rehabilitation of veterans and civilians who had been disabled during wartime.

In 1944, Dr Ludwig Guttmann opened a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where he hosted the first incarnation of the Paralympic Games. On the 29th July 1948, 16 wheelchair athletes competed in archery at the Stoke Mandeville Games.

Over the last 80 years, rehabilitation sport has evolved into a recreational sport, and then into competitive sports, as embodied in the Paralympics that we see today.

For me, the different origins of the Olympics and Paralympics are also the origins of why I position athletes with impairments as being, wrongly, on the edge of inclusion in the sporting world.

The Olympics is steeped in normalcy and ableism, honouring the King of the gods, Zeus, with displays of sporting prowess by the fastest, strongest, and most agile of us, the “Super Humans.”

In contrast, the Paralympic Games has its origins in the medical model of disability that positions people with impairments as lesser, other and in need of a cure.

Symbolism of the Paralympics

For me, symbolism also contributes to parasport being positioned on the edge of inclusion. The Olympic interlocking rings, created in 1913, symbolise activity and unity, with one ring for each of the five continents. The colours of the rings and the white background embody the colours used on national flags.

Similarly, the Paralympic symbol, introduced in 1998, is the three Agitos (a symbol made up of three crescents meaning “I move” in Latin) in red, blue, and green. The colours were chosen as they appear the most frequently in national flags and, therefore, signify the bringing together of athletes to compete from around the world.

There are, therefore, many similarities in the narratives behind the Olympic and Paralympic symbols, which leads me to question why we need two?

This ‘need’ to communicate the difference between the two tournaments, through symbolism, appears to be rooted in the governance of these two global sporting competitions.

However, there are differences when it comes to the medals themselves. In a first for the Paralympics, each medal has one to three indentation(s) on its side to distinguish its colour by touch; one for gold, two for silver, and three for bronze. Braille letters also spell out “Tokyo 2020” on each medal’s face. But no such design was included in the Olympic medals.

Governance of the Olympics and Paralympics

The Olympics and Paralympics are governed by two distinct and very separate bodies. The first by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the second by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC.) There are no plans to merge the two, but they have agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOC) to extend co-operation to 2032.

This ‘co-operation’ allows the events to run concurrently, and the joint promotion of the Paralympic brand. To do so, the memorandum speaks of “deepening existing cooperation,” and “guaranteeing the “financial stability and long-term viability of the IPC.”

Pointedly, the MOC does not include the word “merger”, despite the then President of the IPC saying in 2012, “I’m not dead against the idea, in principle, of [the Olympics and the Paralympics] coming together at some time.”

Maybe the differences in the make-up of the IOC and IPC governing bodies hold some clue as to why they are two such distinct entities.

From the IPC website, it’s clear that the 14 members of the IPC include people with impairments (from a photograph there are four members who are wheelchair users.)

In contrast, the 14 member profiles of the IOC all record their “sports practised” but none refer to any parasport participation or disability. It is clear to see how the divide between the governance of the Olympics and Paralympics is perpetuated from the top down.

Funding for the Olympics vs Paralympics

There is a wide disparity in funding between the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Between 2012 and 2016, UK Sport increased its investment in Paralympic athletes by 43%, bringing the total figure to £70.2 million.

Sounds impressive, but it is still more than 10 times less than the £276.8 million that was spent on Olympic athletes in the same period. The table summarises UK Sport’s Tokyo funding figures:

UK Sport Funding for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympics Games
Sport Tokyo Olympics £ Tokyo Paralympics £ Paralympic % Difference
Archery 1,122,879

 

3,756,092

 

+70
Athletics 23,007,531

 

12,660,737

 

-45
Badminton 946,779

 

1,237,500

 

+77
Cycling 24,559,306

 

8,094,453

 

-67
Equestrian 12,541,195

 

4,361,639

 

-66
Rowing 24,655,408

 

3,664,565

 

-86
Swimming 18,731,645

 

10,869,596

 

-42
Shooting 6,008,790

 

2,499,000

 

-49
Triathlon 7,049,372

 

3,759,775

 

-47

Source: UK Sport website, last accessed 22nd August 2021

I was curious as to why para-badminton and archery were the only sports to receive so much more funding than their Olympic counterparts. Apparently, UK Sport initially denied them both funding. However, it performed a dramatic U-turn after it faced heavy criticism from the sporting community for doing so.

UK Sport claimed it had made a mistake as it had initially funded only sports that had strong and not “just some” medial potential. This U-turn and the massive disparity between funding for able-bodied sports, compared to their disabled equivalent events is, for me, a reflection of the elitism that perpetuates the edge of inclusion positioning for parasport.

The only event played at the inaugural 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games was archery. Given archery’s historical importance to parasport, it is puzzling as to why UK Sport would even consider denying its funding.

The logistics of merging the Olympics and Paralympics

One argument I have heard many times is that an integrated event would just not be possible to organise. This imagined ‘impossibility’ is based on the number of competitors that would need to be provided with accommodation, transport, food and drink, etc.

Granted, since the first Paralympic Games, participation has increased by nearly 16-fold to the 4,400 athletes competing in Tokyo 2020. Similarly, 11,656 athletes competed in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics compared to only 280 in the first modern Olympics.

However, competitors, whether able-bodied or with an impairment, compete on or in the same track, field, swimming pool, river, or range. It is commonalities like these we need to champion to move parasport away from the edge of inclusion.

Another argument for not having an integrated event is around the number of days it would need to be extended to. In Tokyo, the Olympics took place over 17 days and the Paralympics is scheduled for 13. So, a combined event would take 30 days. That’s a whole month of the celebration of sport – how is that a bad thing?

For me, there is no difference in running an integrated programme compared to two separate events. With the economies of scale in logistics, this may even shorten the overall number of days of competition.

The views of para-athletes

Of paramount importance is the views of parathletes as to whether the two tournaments should be integrated.

A number of para-athletes believe that one, integrated competition would raise their profiles, give them equal media coverage, sponsorship opportunities, and status.

Some, however, are concerned that if the events were merged, the number of para events would be reduced and overshadowed. But, for me, this is all the more reason to ensure we merge them in a way that means all athletes and events get the same amount of time in the spotlight.

Whether the events integrate or remain separate, the issues I have highlighted need to be addressed to allow all athletes, regardless of any impairments they may or may not have, to compete on a level playing field.

Media coverage of the Paralympics

In 2012, 2016, and 2021, the BBC provided comprehensive coverage of the Olympic Games. However, the Paralympics have and are being covered by Channel 4.

A spokesperson for BBC Sport said, “The BBC is disappointed to have not been awarded the rights to the 2012 Paralympic Games.” The BBC was, quite simply, outbid by Channel 4.

Channel 4 has had the rights since the 2012 Paralympics, when its coverage was credited with creating “seismic shifts” in the attitudes towards people with disabilities.

The BBC showed just over 500 hours of the Tokyo Olympic Games. In contrast, Channel 4 is planning to broadcast 1,300 hours of coverage of the Tokyo Paralympics Games.

Thank you Channel 4, who is indeed the World’s leading Paralympic broadcaster! Maybe the BBC not getting the rights to broadcast has done more to champion parasport than we could ever have imagined.

Should we merge the Olympics and Paralympics?

To address the divide between para and able-bodied sport, as embodied by the Olympic and Paralympic Games, we need to move parasport away from the edge of inclusion.

Ideologically and practically society needs to bridge the chasm that exists between sporting competitions by humans with and without impairments.

Clearly, since 1948, parasport has come a long way and perhaps further than could ever have been imagined in post-war Britain. However, whilst the two Games remain separate, with respect to symbolism, governance, logistics, media coverage, funding and timing, parasport will continue to be positioned as lesser and other.

Nothing, for me, could be further from the truth. Parathletes have had to overcome far more challenges than their able-bodied compatriots in order to access, train, compete, and achieve in sport, and therefore, for me, are the true super-humans honouring Zeus.

Read all our interviews with Paralympic athletes, including Hannah Cockcroft, Richard Whitehead, Stef Reid and Lauren Steadman

Dr Joanna Baker-Rogers

More on Disability Horizons…

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