By Shreya Ramchandran
“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that’s why I succeeded.”
– Michael Jordan.
Time and again the world of sports provides us with a picture of what dedication, perseverance and hard work looks like. The rhythm of the game and the ease in flow of the players mars the blood, sweat and tears that goes behind putting up such a performance. It’s a game of mental and physical strength, the winner having the right mix of both at that moment. We continue to learn from the greats of their field, but also from the young, growing players that are still finding their way into the limelight. The Olympics and the Paralympics Games are a place where people portray how to make the impossible possible.
The Paralympic games is a multi-sport event that started around the 1960s, and includes players with a wide range of physical disabilities such as impaired muscle power, impaired range of movements, vision impairment, short stature etc., giving them a chance to pursue their dreams and passion. The first game of this stature was called ‘The Stoke Mandeville Games’, and took place in Rome, Italy. It featured 400 athletes from 23 countries, showing the need for such an event in the future. In September 1989, the International Paralympic Committee was formed to act as the global voice for the Paralympic movement. The name “Paralympic” was coined to signify the equality between the Olympics and the Paralympics, and that the two movements must exist side by side. (“Para” is a Greek proposition meaning alongside or besides).
Over the years, the brilliance of these athletes was portrayed in their grit and perseverance in their sport, expanding the Paralympic movement to more than just a sporting event, but an event that “boasts a strong track record for transforming attitudes, cities, countries, and the lives of millions of people around the world.”
An example of a great para-athlete is Jason Smyth, a visually impaired Irish sprinter, who took the world by storm by winning gold medals in various Paralympic and World Championship events. He managed to clinch the title of Paralympic and World Champion 5 and 7 times respectively, as of 2019. One of the things he really wanted to do was to change the perception of people, change the stereotype – he wanted to prove to the world that “just because you can’t see, doesn’t mean you can’t run fast.” He started competing in para-sports in 2005, and years of hard work and effort has gotten him the name of “the world’s fastest ever Paralympian” in 2016 by Britain’s BBC.
While such achievements by the various athletes are recognized and applauded the world over, it can many a times be in a light of unintended empathy rather than equality that the movement hoped to elucidate. In the early 2000s, the media ended up shedding light on these athletes with a focus on their disabilities, rather than on their sporting achievement. This has created a lot of controversy as people started to wonder if this is an instance of the privileged writing about the underprivileged; a way portraying them as different and unique then the rest of the world – a story of Us and Them.
One of the most prominent ways of representing these athletes is the use of “supercrip narrative”. This narrative borrows the framework of a superhero, where they manage to “overcome” their problems to achieve success. Supercrips “are those individuals whose inspirational stories of courage, dedication, and hard work prove that it can be done, that one can defy the odds and accomplish the impossible. The concern is that these stories of success will foster unrealistic expectations about what people with disabilities can achieve, what they should be able to achieve if only they tried hard enough. Society does not need to change. It is the myth of the self-made man.” An example of this was seen in the Tokyo Games, 2020, as the Japanese government used anime (Japanese animation), manga (Japanese comics) and magazines to promote and increase viewership in the Paralympic Games. The national television network NHK aired anime episodes such as Ani X Para series where several athletes were depicted to be competing in 2020 Games, and it was accompanied by the slogan “Who is your hero?” A magna called Paralympic Jump (PJ), was also published in 2017, that featured disabled athletes as the central characters. It had popular support as a means of promoting the games. While it did manage to increase the visibility of the Paralympic Games, it was not done in the best of light. Many of the athletes had their disabilities presented as deficiencies, with the sport presented as the tool to overcome it through strict and hard training, adversity, and perseverance, restrictions. Even the way the characters were visualized was as a means to portray the “heroism” in their acts. The first, if not the second, topic of every first chapter was an exploration of the main character’s disability. In addition, to make sure the readers understand that some characters have a visual impairment, all the blind characters have whitened out eyes. This “hyper-visibility” of the athletes’ disabilities reinforces disability, not athletic performance, as the main characteristic of those depicted. Paralympians, when viewed in this light, are seen as the superheroes who overcame their disability to be able to participate in the Paralympic games. Even the trailer title for the Paralympic Games in Channel 4 was named “Super. Human…”
Another prominent way of representing Paralympians is in the context of successfully adapting to the use of technology to achieve success, rather than their athletic abilities. This is the “cyborgs” narrative. Moreover, the Paralympian is often compared to his Olympian counterpart of the similar event, rather than celebrating the athlete’s abilities in their own rights. In the Japanese comics, the covers are the first things one sees where the visualization of disability is made prominent with enhanced depiction of technologies such as the blade and the wheelchair. It is seen as a way of enhancing the communication of disability to the reader. Even the posters in the Tokyo metro stations had depictions in such a way that the focus of the viewer would turn to the wheelchair whether one intends to or not.
However, the turn in the attitude of media coverage is on the positive side, as many Paralympians are now represented as athletes first. A positive way in which the media is now covering Paralympic Games is through an informative approach that aims at educating viewers about the Paralympic movement, and includes articles written by the Paralympians themselves. This is helpful in creating a fanbase for the event, while providing a platform for the athletics to tell their narrative in their way. An example of this is by NowThisNews, a social media organization, that allowed the Paraathelete, Stephanie Jallen, to tell her story in her way. Another example is the interview conducted by Glam Inc., on the paralympic swimmer, Jessica Long.
Another framework that could be used is the multidimensional framework that looks at athletes beyond their role on the field. It talks about their lives as people, parents, children, sisters and brothers, giving the chance to connect with Paralympians in new ways that was not done before. It also involves interviews with athletes, where they open up about their daily life such as the
A popular campaign called #WeThe15, was started by the International Paralympics Committee along with UNESCO, to raise awareness and end discrimination against people with disabilities. Launched at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Games, it hopes to bring about a change in inequality for the 15% of the world population that suffer from disabilities. With this movement, the hope is to break down barriers that prevent people from achieving their potential.
With the rise in awareness of inequality in the world, the need for an inclusive society is becoming more and more prominent. The world is filled with unique people, each one an integral part of the world, and each one deserves an equal place in society. Everyone is trying to do the best they can in this world, and we have to show them that their best is enough.
Shreya Ramchandran is a second-year undergraduate Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University, and a prospective minor in psychology.
Image credits: https://www.paralympic.org/news/welcome-para-swimming