It’s Time To Scrap the Paralympics. Disabled Athletes Should Compete in the Olympics, Too.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 9 2012 8:04 AM

Scrap the Paralympics

Disabled athletes should compete in the Olympics, too.

Oscar Pistorius of South Africa starts on the blocks in the Men's 400m Semi Final.
Oscar Pistorius of South Africa starts on the blocks in the Men's 400-meter semifinal of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Michael Steele/Getty Images.

Before we know it, the Olympic frenzy will come to an end. The final medals will be handed out, the tourists and the press will head back home, and James Bond will escort the Queen back to Buckingham Palace. Two weeks after that, the London Paralympics will start—two weeks too late. The world’s second-largest sporting event behind the Olympics themselves—4,200 athletes from 165 countries will compete—will receive no live television coverage in the United States.

Granted, the Paralympics will receive more attention this year than ever before. In the United Kingdom, Channel 4 has launched an amazing Paralympics promotional campaign. “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, who will compete for South Africa in both the Olympics and the Paralympics, has brought unprecedented attention to amputee athletics. And yet the question keeps coming up: If the aim of the Paralympic movement is to make disabled athletes visible, why do they compete separately from able-bodied champions?

It’s possible that will change in the next decade. Earlier this year, International Paralympic Committee President Sir Philip Craven suggested that a merger with the Olympics could be considered after 2020. A March poll of 10,000 people from 19 countries conducted by the BBC suggests the general public would be divided about such a move: Forty-seven percent were in favor of a merger, while 43 percent said they should remain parallel but separate events. Some high-profile Paralympians have come down on the side of separation as well. A merger would make para-athletes “disappear off the face of the earth,” 11-time-gold-medal-winning British wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson told the BBC.

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Two main arguments stand out in the stay-separate camp. The first is a pragmatic one. "There is not a city in the world that could host a games the size of the two combined,” Grey-Thompson said. "I think it would make it very long and you don't really want to make things too long,” added Paralympic swimmer Fran Halsall. “I get bored watching myself swim for eight days, so having more and more swimming I don't think would work.”

The second argument against a merger is that, as Grey-Thompson suggested, it would bring less, not more, attention to athletes with disabilities. As blind broadcaster Peter White asked in the Guardian, “Faced with the choice of the finish of the Olympic marathon, or the goalball event for blind athletes, where will sports editors send their reporters?”

These are valid points, but even considering the complications a merger would bring, the Olympics should bring the Paralympics into the fold. I’ve been filming a documentary about goalball for more than seven months now. Contrary to wheelchair basketball or amputee athletics, which enjoy some level of acclaim, goalball—a team sport for visually impaired athletes—is already virtually nonexistent outside the Paralympic sphere. That’s not because it isn’t exciting. Rather, it’s invisible because it’s not an adaptation of an able-bodied discipline.

As a result, training as a goalball athlete is a constant struggle. Local teams rely exclusively on charities. You may think that, though this is sad, it has nothing to do with the combination of the Olympics and Paralympics. It has everything to do with it. Too few Paralympians are full-time athletes. To provide them with professional funding, there needs to be an audience for goalball or wheelchair fencing. And a merger can achieve just that.

That’s exactly the opposite of what Grey-Thompson and White believe. In their opinion, embedding Paralympic disciplines in the Olympics would make physically challenged athletes fall into oblivion. While it’s easy to assume that the public has no interest in disabled sports, I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that sports fans are so rigid. A similar argument could have been made against women joining the Olympics in 1900. Who would watch those slow, weak females play? Boring! And even if it may be true that a boccia finale for severely disabled athletes would appeal less to the masses than an Usain Bolt-starring 100-meter dash, that’s the very nature of a multi-sport event. Some Paralympic games are more popular than others, too. Given the choice to watch wheelchair rugby, aka “Murderball,” or able-bodied men’s 49er sailing, which would you choose?

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