As we bid farewell to the spectacular Olympics, we must not forget that there’s more to look forward to – the Paralympic Games start later this month. In this post, Andrea Bundon, charts the history and journey of the Paralympics. She thinks London 2012 will be an unprecedented year for the Paralympics and discusses some of the challenges the Games face.
When Mayor Ken Livingstone signed an agreement with the International Paralympic Committee on 5 July 2005, he actually committed the city of London to hosting two mega sports events. This should not be news to anyone — all of the marketing and promotion of the London Games has quite clearly indicated that these will be the Olympic and Paralympic Games. However, while most people have at least a passing familiarity with the Olympic Games, the Paralympic Games — the second largest multi-sport event in the world — are less well understood.
The Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England is the oft-cited birthplace of the Paralympic Games. Originally built in 1830 in response to a cholera outbreak, Stoke Mandeville was pressed into service as a hospital for war veterans with spinal cord injuries during World War II. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon who fled Nazi Germany for England, was appointed director of the National Spinal Cord Injuries Centre at the hospital. Guttmann is commonly credited as the founding father of the Paralympic Movement (and long before he earned that moniker he was ‘Poppa’ to the patients at the hospital).
Guttmann had some radical ideas for his time — he believed that sport could contribute to the physical rehabilitation of the patients as well as their social and psychological wellbeing. With the help of the hospital staff, he integrated a variety of sports and games into the patients’ programs and, in 1948, he organised an archery demonstration by sixteen patients. It was (by coincidence or design) held on the same day as the Opening Ceremonies of the 1948 London Olympics. The event became an annual tradition at Stoke Mandeville and eventually morphed into what we today know as the Paralympic Games. (For a full history of the Paralympic Games visit http://www.paralympic.org/ParalympicGames).
The hospital hosted the games again in 1952 and 1956 (following the four year Olympiad) and each time invited other nations to send representatives. In 1960, the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation (ISMWSF) was created and the games were held in Rome, the site of that year’s Olympic Games. This time, the event included over 400 athletes from 23 nations but was still limited to wheelchair events — specifically those considered beneficial and suitable for athletes with spinal cord injuries. This focus on the rehabilitative qualities of the selected sports, along with the involvement of an Italian hospital for spinal cord injury research, indicates that the ties between the event, the medical community, and notions of rehabilitation were still very strong in the early years of the movement. What had changed in the 12 years since the start of the event was the inclusion of events for women. While only two women competed in 1948, the Rome games included women’s categories in six of the eight sports.
In his book, The cultural politics of the paralympic movement: Through an anthropological lens, scholar and athlete David Howe identifies three moments in the History of Paralympic sport and states that if the first phase is best described as sport as rehabilitation then the second phase entailed sport as participation. The second era which spanned the 1960s through to the 1980s saw a dramatic increase in sporting opportunities for disabled people supported by the creation of International Organisations of Sport for the Disabled (IOSDs). Organisations for people with visual impairments, amputations, cerebral palsy, and wheelchair users eventually joined forces with the ISMWSF in 1982 to form the International Coordinating Committee for World Sports Organizations (ICC). The ICC was renamed the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in 1989 and, in 1992, the partnership between the IPC and the IOC was further formalised when the IOC announced that bid cities would now be required to host the Paralympic Games in addition to the Olympics.
The third moment in the Paralympic Movement is described by Howe as the age of high-performance or elite sport for disabled people. It is this focus on elite, medal driven performance that will largely characterise the 2012 London Paralympic Games and that already dominates the advertising campaigns and marketing in the lead up to the event. Under this model, the strength, the athleticism and the work ethos of disabled athletes are highlighted and prosthetic limbs and assistive devices are largely portrayed as the latest advancement in hi-tech sports equipment. (Check out the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s SuperAthlete marketing campaign at https://paralympic.ca/superathletes).
This close relationship with the International Olympic Committee and the simultaneous shift towards a high-performance model has certainly raised the profile of disability sport and it has had many positive implications for athletes. The cohort of Paralympians competing in London this year will have received more funding, better coaching and generally better support from their respective national organisations than previous Paralympic delegations. It has also raised some very interesting debates within disability sport communities — debates that question the central tenets of the Paralympic Movement.
The challenge for the International Paralympic Committee and all their partners is to continue this drive towards sporting excellence while at the same time ensuring they are not leaving anyone behind. For example, it can be very difficult to explain to a television audience why there are fifteen men’s 100m races rather than the single showdown seen at the Olympics. The answer, of course, is that there are fifteen ‘classes’ of athletes grouped by the type and severity of their impairments. Grouping the athletes in this way ensures that the races remain competitive and that athletes with more severe impairments are not consistently left behind when the gun goes off (and that the more ‘able’ competitors do not sweep the podium).
Athletics is actually one of the easier sports to explain to the viewing audience — the more challenging sports are those that do not have ‘able-bodied’ equivalents such as goalball (a team sport played in a gym by athletes with visual impairments) or boccia (a sport similar to bocce or boules and played primarily by competitors with cerebral palsy or other neurological conditions that require them to use a wheelchair). As the Paralympic Games gain notoriety and reach larger and larger audiences, the challenge for the Paralympic Movement is to resist taking the route of least resistance and prioritising those sports and athletes that are the ‘easiest’ for mainstream audiences to relate to while simultaneously sidelining the members of their community who are not perceived to be as ‘telegenic.’ (If you would like to find out more about the sports included in the Paralympics as well as the different classifications within each sport please visit the International Paralympic Committee’s Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/ParalympicGames).
The 2012 London Games will be a landmark event in the history of the Paralympic Movement. They will be the biggest Paralympics ever with 165 nations participating and over 4,200 athletes — Guttmann could never have envisioned this when he organized his first small demonstration event at Stoke Mandeville. Channel 4’s coverage of the games also represents a huge leap forward — they have promised to air an unprecedented 150 hours of all day coverage as well as three further streams of uninterrupted live coverage on dedicated channels. The opportunity for the London Paralympics to really reach a mainstream audience and introduce these amazing athletes to the world is amazing — the challenge will be to not let the bright lights and the drive towards elite sporting excellence distract from the commitment to creating equitable societies and providing more equal opportunities that have always been at the heart of the Paralympic Movement.
Andrea Bundon is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia (Canada) in the School of Kinesiology. Her research focuses on the use of social media within the Paralympic movement. She competed in the 2010 Paralympic Games as a guide for para-nordic skier Courtney Knight.
Andrea maintains a blog – www.athletesfirst.ca – as part of her research project on the use of the Internet by sports related social groups/movements. The blog is co-written by six athletes – all past or present members of the Canadian Paralympic Team. The goal of AthletesFirst is to provide an ‘insider’ look at disability sport and to engage readers in discussions about disability sport.
This is the last post in our Diversity in Sport series. To read the previous entries, please follow the tag ‘Diversity in Sport’.