Viewpoint by Simone Galimberti
Simone Galimberti is Author and Co-Founder of ENGAGE, a not-for-profit NGO in Nepal. He writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives.
KATHMANDU, Nepal (IDN) — Once again the limelight will be back on Tokyo as the city is hosting the Paralympics Games, another carnival of sports with the participation of about 4400 athletes from 160 countries and territories.
Since the 2012 the London Games, the interest on the Paralympics (24 August-September 5) is certainly growing and long strides have been made.
London provided an unprecedented level of exposure to adaptive sports with crowds unseen before and millions of people watching the Paralympics from home, thanks to a bold decision of the broadcaster Channel 4 to ensure the games would receive an equal amount of TV hours as the Olympics Games did.
The Paralympics that will run till the 5th of September are also drawing attention of major private corporations. This will be instrumental in achieving an even greater visibility than London’s.
Broadcasters from all over the world are investing more on the games and this time around, also viewers from many developing countries will have a much bigger access thanks to the decision taken by the International Paralympics Committee to waive the TV rights for them.
Facebook is also working hard to promote the Paralympics on its platforms, an effort that should pay off in terms of outreach to users unaware of adaptive sports.
With more sponsors embracing the Games and with more people able to watch them, Paralympics are getting closer and closer to be become a mainstream sports event.
Still should we be satisfied with such coverage, or should we aim for more?
While it is certainly positive to have a global event like the Paralympics finally receiving the due attention, what will it take for the entire adaptive sports sector to grow even further and be watched, talked, and written about at the par of mainstream able-bodied sports?
Why should wheelchair basketball, one of the most followed competitions since London’s Games Paralympics, return to the margins of the sports coverage, once the limelight from the Paralympics is off?
What would it take for this discipline and many others to receive the right recognition and visibility on day-to-day basis rather than just one-off time every four years?
One possible way forward to really “normalize” adaptive sports is continuing creating a different narrative about disabilities.
That’s why promotional advertisement like “Yes I Can, We Are Superhumans” that was launched in the UK for the Rio 2016 Paralympics and “Rising Phoenix”, a Netflix documentary about nine 2016 Paralympians are great ways to create a new awareness about adaptive sports.
Still the problem that adaptive sports struggle to gain traction in the mainstream sports commentaries throughout the year can be explained by the fact that there is still so much stigma and ignorance around disability.
Creating a new narrative through sports must be part of a renewed attention on disability rights.
Here it’s when grassroots campaigning combined with organizing efforts at national and global levels remain essential.
The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will see the launch of a new global campaign “WeThe15” that call itself the “sport’s biggest ever human rights movement to end discrimination”.
If this type of initiatives will be backed and supported on the long run as “WeThe15” that underscore how 15% of the world population live with an impairment, is committed to do, then more people will become more conscious of disability rights.
The ambition of “WeThe15” of which the International Paralympics Committee is a key member is big and it must be so.
“We aim to transform the lives of the world’s 1.2 billion persons with disabilities who represent 15% of the global population”.
Shaping a new narrative, together with campaigning, must be followed by interventions at global policy level.
On this regard, a positive note is that the Global Disability Summit that was initially hosted by the UK in 2018 will see another edition in 2022, this time organized by the Government of Norway.
The United Nations’ Agencies and Program are also making strides to better include disabilities in their planning but there is still a long way to go all over the world, not just in the so called “South”.
That’s why sport offers a unique opportunity to press on with asserting disability rights all over the world.
The current attention on the Paralympics in Tokyo must not only grow but also remained sustained after their end, paving the way for continued news coverage till the next games in Paris in 2024 and beyond.
Sports are an incredible medium to create awareness.
With broadcasters now on board, with more sponsors that might get into the “arena” to promote adaptive sports on consistent basis rather than just for one event happening every four years, we need to be creative to attract and maintain attention of the people.
One possible way, surely an unprecedented logistic challenge would be to merge the Olympics and Paralympics Games. This would not downgrade Paralympians but rather bring them at the center of global attention.
The reality is that, despite all the efforts and progress, the Paralympics will never be able to command the same attention the Olympics are able to do just few weeks ago.
Perhaps this is a too gloomy scenario, but we cannot wait for fifty years or more to get there.
We could have some events from both Olympics and Paralympics at least sharing some of the dates with such overlapping enabling true sports inclusion though the final goal would be a longer unified event equally co-hosted by the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympics Committee.
A simpler alternative would be to go back to one good practice of the past. From 1984 Summer Olympics till 2004 Summer Olympics, two wheelchair racing events were included in the athletic program as demonstration sports.
Now that adaptive sports have reached new heights, why not trying again to include some adaptive sports disciplines as full medal awarding events during the Olympics?
Another option, certainly not simpler, would be to organize first the Paralympics and then the Olympics, the opposite of what been done so far.
This is an idea shared by Paul Bowes, the first assistant coach with the German male wheelchair basketball team and one of the most successful wheelchair basketball coaches in history with his multiple gold wins with Team Canada.
“If the Paralympic Games were held before the Olympic Games, highlight packages or full games could be shown while the Olympic Games are being broadcast” he shares.
“That would give better exposure to our athletes as a much wider audience around the world would be watching and this might inspire more viewers to know about the Paralympics, helping to reach out to those who would benefit from adaptive sports”.
This is an idea he had shared long time ago when he was at the helm between 2000 and 2005 of the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball Federation, now Wheelchair Basketball Canada or WBC but the proposal never got traction.
The way forward was shown in the United States Olympic Committee has become the United States Olympic and Paralympics Committee in 2019.
A change in name revealed instead upgrading adaptive sports as key programs of the Olympic movement in the USA.
We need to be bold and creative.
We need to ensure that while we focus on the incredible gestures of adaptive sports athletes, by trying to bring longer term, consistent attention on their achievements thanks to catchy stories, national and global policies must also change as well.
Grabbing the world attention for two weeks every four year should not be the goal anymore.
We must go beyond that.
We need to be more ambitious.
That’s why disability rights should be at the center of any rethinking of the Paralympics Games.
After all, Coach Bowes is right.
“These athletes should be treated as athletes and not human-interest stories, however, their amazing stories inspiring!” [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 August 2021]
Photo: Members of the disabled community play a game of football in Kayunga District, Uganda. UNICEF/Rebecca Vassie
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