Are the Paralympics really Fair & Equal?

From late July till early September 2021, Olympics fever had gripped the world. This included both the traditional Olympics and the Paralympics. In the lead up to the Games, many suspected that it would be called off at the first signs of detection of Covid virus amongst the athletes and the officials. But thanks to the measures put in place by the Japanese organising committee, people of Tokyo and the athletes and officials, the games were conducted & concluded in the best possible manner.

While Olympics are keenly watched all over the world, even in countries that send no or just a handful of athletes – it is the Paralympics that has grown in popularity in the last two decades (i.e., spread across five “episodes”). The primary difference between the Olympics and Paralympics is that while most of the participants in the Olympics are able bodies, the participants in the Paralympics are affected by some form of physical or intellectual disabilities. In fact, the Paralympics originally started as a way to help soldiers that had been wounded in World War II, which eventually turned into recreational sport with friendly competition before eventually developing into what the Paralympics are today.

At the Tokyo Olympics 93 countries won medals with three countries winning their first Olympic medal ever. There were 33 sports featuring 50 disciplines and a total of 1017 medals being awarded. In comparison, at the Tokyo Paralympics, 86 countries won medals wherein 5 countries won their first Paralympic medal ever. A total of 1668 medals were award – more than 50% of the number awarded at the Olympics.

It’s interesting to note the Paralympics have gained so much popularity in recent times but has it really become equal. Let’s start with the athletes. Each of them is a great story to be inspired from. Not only are they highly skilled in their fields, but they also overcame their disabilities. They display great determination and courage to overcome mental and physical obstacles. They are truly inspirational because they prove that few things are impossible. The Paralympics also raise awareness of mental and physical disabilities in the hope of creating a better life for those with disabilities. It therefore serves to change public perception of disabilities in order to provide the Paralympics with better facilities that would drastically improve their quality of life. However, in comparison to Olympic medal winners, Paralympics winners get far less than their fair share. Ask yourself – can you name 10 (or 8 or 6) medal winners of your country at Tokyo Paralympics 2020?

According to United Nations, 10% of global population (about 700 million people) have some form of physical and mental disability. 80% of these people live in developing countries. Disability sports is not only beneficial to their health and psychological well being and can directly inspire hundreds of those in the community. It’s like a ripple effect. We all feel motivated when we hear of disabled people overcoming all odds and rising to the top – be it in sports, technology, arts or science. But it’s a totally different feel when you have a chance to meet or train with an athlete who has represented at Paralympics. In addition, many athletes are transformed into icons as a result of attracting large numbers of followers.

It could be argued that one possible measure of social and economic success within a particular country is the treatment and social status of minority groups such as people with disabilities. Given the costs of taking part in and achieving success in the Paralympic Games it could also be argued that such participation may be an indicator of how well people with disabilities are regarded within the nation that they represent.

However, a recent study shows that it’s not an even playing field for athletes who participate and perform successfully in paralympic sport. In the study, it was found that economic factors play a major role. Affordability influences the extent to which countries can participate in different events. Athletes from low- and middle-income countries – particularly women – are at a distinct disadvantage. These differences are particularly marked in events that have a high cost of participation. High income countries, such as the US, Sweden and Norway, were 3.4 times more likely to participate in the championships compared with low or middle income countries like South Africa and India. This means that there are fewer participants from low and middle-income countries. This in turn affects country performance measured by the number of medals each country earns.

These findings are not that different from similar studies on Olympic sport. This shows success is closely related to gross domestic product, team size and country wealth.

More must be done to level the playing fields for athletes with disabilities. To achieve fairness and include all people with disabilities, the International Paralympic Committee must be mindful of the structural and economic factors in low- and middle-income countries that get in the way of athletes’ participation. Applying technologies to athletes in conditions where there is relative economic prosperity may well serve to equalise opportunities within higher income contexts.

It is not the role of the International Paralympic Committee to tackle global inequality. But the inspirational and aspirational tone of the language used by the committee may lead to the unrealistic expectation that paralympic sport is fair and equal. There is a real danger that the language used by the committee is leading to the unrealistic expectation that paralympic sport is fair and equal. This is not fair on disabled athletes, or people living with disabilities.


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