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Expert Comment: The Paralympics

Dr Owen Barden Thursday 8 September 2016

As the Paralympic Games get underway, Lecturer in Disability and Education Studies Owen Barden discusses the controversy surrounding funding and how it’s a form of discrimination.

The Paralympics are getting underway and we will no doubt once again see fierce competition and excellent performances from many of the athletes, some of who visited Liverpool recently to compete in August’s British Triathlon Championships. Unfortunately, the widely reported funding debacle, whereby the International Olympic Committee overspent on the Olympics and so took funds from the Paralympic budget to make up the shortfall, will undoubtedly overshadow the Games. Discrimination like this only serves to reinforce the notion that disabled athletes and people are second-class citizens. As Team GB sprinter Jonny Peacock said in a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, there appears to be one set of rules for non-disabled athletes and another for disabled. Of course, the very notion of having two different events also entrenches the troublesome idea that disabled and non-disabled are somehow two different kinds of people. Many disabled people also strongly object to the “Superhuman” stereotype perpetuated, most obviously, by Channel 4’s Paralympic advertising.

It doesn’t stop there, though. For example, disabled athletes are forbidden from wearing branded clothing trackside, denying them the sponsorship opportunities open to Olympic competitors - Forbes recently reported that Usain Bolt will earn $32.5m this year, with “only” $2.5m coming from winnings; he will “earn” $30m through endorsements. The funding fiasco affecting the Games is part of a larger pattern. In the UK, Paralympic sport only receives one-fifth of the funding enjoyed by its Olympic counterparts. We also need to take into account the Government’s recent welfare cuts, which have not only made day-to-day living much harder for many disabled people, but also affected athletes’ ability to compete. A couple of examples: the much-hated Bedroom Tax meant wheelchair basketball player Freya Levy had to miss out on the Games in order to find a new home. Whilst wheelchair track athlete Carly Tait had to give back her adapted car because of changes to the Motability eligibility criteria, leaving her unable to travel to training. 

On the other hand, technological innovations are helping some really interesting developments in disability sport, and raising some fundamental questions about our distinctions between ‘able’ and ‘disabled’ and even what it means to be human. The now-annual Cybathlon in Switzerland includes races where athletes wear powered exoskeletons and prosthesis. There are even Brain-Machine Interface races whereby competitors control virtual flying craft in a computer game using thought alone. No doubt these innovations will filter through to the rest of society, and force us to consider questions like these, and many more: How much of a person’s body or mind can you change and it still be them? How do we distinguish between person and machine when they inhabit the same body? Whose fault is it if the technology goes wrong and causes an accident – the wearer or the maker? Should we allow non-disabled people to access technologies designed for disabled people?

And finally, one other question: do we really need to separate the Olympics and Paralympics?

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