The Paralympics have come a long way. Qualifying criteria were introduced 20 years ago, after the 1992 Barcelona Games. Before then, anyone could compete. Tickets were given away, not sold, until 1996.* In these ways, the International Paralympic Committee has pushed effectively toward a better understanding and recognition of their athletes. The competition has grown in legitimacy to establish itself as an elite sporting event. Yet because of the separate structure of the Paralympics, that recognition can only go so far.
What about the argument that a merged event would last too long? The Paralympic Games have run directly after the Olympics since 1988 and will continue to do so until at least 2020. If you add together the lengths of each competition in 2012, a combined event would last about a month—2.5 weeks for the Olympics and 1.5 weeks for the Paralympics. In essence, it’s already an extremely long event. It’s just that the public and the media focus exclusively on the first, able-bodied half.
What’s true, however, is that the range of categories that compete in a single Paralympic sport is extremely wide. Instead of splitting athletes according to their weight and/or gender, Paralympians are placed in disability groups according to their mobility or vision levels. There are 13 swimming divisions and 10 table tennis groups. How could they all be incorporated?
The Commonwealth Games, which became fully inclusive in 2002, could serve as a template. In that quadrennial event—which is admittedly much smaller than the Paralympics, with just 71 countries competing—track and field and swimming races alternate between able-bodied and para-athletes. This means that one event, say the 400-meter dash, would last many times longer than it currently does—amputee runners might come before naturally limbed ones, who would themselves be followed by the visually impaired. So yes, the competition would be very long. But would that be such a bad thing? Peter Murphy, a spokesman for the Commonwealth Games Federation, told me that watching able-bodied and para-athletes alternate was inspirational and entertaining. “It’s actually a really good spectator sport,” he says. “You look at it and you think, Yes, that’s how it should be.”
He’s right. Having Olympic and Paralympic athletes compete together would guarantee television coverage, and it would be a way to “educate” the public should it be reluctant to watch para-athletes. But I don’t think such education would be required.
In a combined event, medals won by para-athletes would contribute to their nation’s medal count. That would perhaps be the most meaningful change of all—one that already makes a difference at the Commonwealth Games, according to David Grevemberg, CEO of the 2014 event. With patriotism in play, the best physically challenged athletes would develop a fan base. Countries would invest more in disability sports to get ahead in the competition. And let’s be cynical: The media, which (aside from Channel 4) covers so few Paralympic events, couldn’t resist telling para-athletes’ uplifting life stories. So many heartwarming tales of redemption!
It wouldn’t be long before those sob stories turned into tales of success. By earning gold for their country, Paralympians would finally be seen for what they really are: true champions. But we’re not even close to that right now. Team USA was third on the medal table at the 2008 Paralympics. Who knew? It’s time to give our superhumans the attention they deserve. Let them in the Olympics.
Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the London Olympics.
Correction, Aug. 9, 2012: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Paralympics tickets were given away until 2000. Tickets were sold at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. (Return.)