June 2017


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[personal profile] nightengalesknd
I’m boycotting the Olympics.

Not the 2016 Summer Games, which happen to be on now. The Olympics. Period. I’ve been boycotting the Olympics since at least 2008.

Before that, I just didn’t watch, talk about, or care about the Olympics. I don’t follow sports. So it’s not like my boycott really changes much of anything I’m doing. Or not doing. It’s just the principal of the thing.

I am boycotting the Olympics due to the disparity of treatment between the Olympics and the Paralympics.

The Paralympics, for those who haven’t been paying attention, is an elite athletic competition for athletes with disabilities. They (it? I pay so little attention to the Olympics that I’m not even sure if it is a collective noun or if they are singular games pluralized) take place at the same venue as the Olympics, afterwards, at least from 2001 to 2020. It started with the Stoke Mandeville games for disabled veterans at the British Stoke Mandeville hospital in 1948.

There are a number of sports and events. Like the Olympics, most of them involve either doing something faster than everyone else (athletes might call this “racing”) or doing something as a team very well while simultaneously preventing another team from doing the same thing. There are a few other events such as archery and judo, which are probably self-explanatory. One thing that makes the Paralympics a little more complicated is that there is more subdivision of events. The Olympics might have a race of Women Swimming This Far. The Paralympics may have a number of events for Women Swimming This Far, because they have separate categories for women who are blind, those who swim using their upper and lower body but with some upper body impairment and those who swim using only their upper body.

There’s a whole system of classification used so that people with similar disabilities are competing against each other in events where that matters. Degree of impairment matters more than specific diagnosis in most cases, so swimmers with full use of arms but limited use of legs are in the same S5 category whether they have cerebral palsy, paraplegia from a spinal cord injury or amputations. Some team sports give athletes points based on certain abilities, and only a certain number of points can be on the field/court/whatever at a time.

There are sports and events adapted for people with disabilities, such as sitting volleyball, and then there are sports that are only played in disabilityland, such as goalball.

And no one has ever heard of them.

So typically, in the United States, the Olympics gets several hours of prime time coverage on a major TV network every night for all the days of the games. Over the past few games, the Paralympics gets an hour or two of retrospective coverage on a Sunday afternoon on a cable channel.

No wonder no one has ever heard of them.

In England, the Paralympics is broadcast much more widely than it is in the US. And anecdotally, it seems that more non-disabled people in England have some idea about the games, what they are about, and can name some athletes.

The argument by the media, of course, is that no one wants to watch the Paralympics. No one wants to watch an event they don’t know anything about because there’s no coverage, of course. Imagine if they cut from, say, women’s non-disabled uneven bars to the USA-Canada men’s wheelchair basketball game, even just for a few minutes.

So disparate attention is issue number one.

Disparate portrayal is issue number two.

Overall, when Paralympians do get media attention, they don’t get it as athletes.

There was a commercial put out this year in England describing the Paralympians as “superhuman.” Now, sure, on some level, people who can run faster than everyone else or lift heavier things than everyone else are in a pretty unusual category. But that includes both disabled and non-disabled people who can use their bodies in ways that most people cannot. We call our non-disabled divers, runners and skiers many complementary things, but “superhuman” is typically not one of them.

Articles are full of words like “overcoming” rather than words about the sports themselves. The Olympics makes the front page and the sports page. The Paralympics makes the “human interest” section.

And it’s typically about individual overcoming, also, particularly for athletes with acquired rather than congenital disabilities.

They don’t go into the systemic problems that do need a lot of work. Picture, if you will, a non-disabled 12 year old who likes to run and runs really fast. He or she may or may not have the opportunity to be an Olympic athlete. But he or she probably has access to running shoes and to a track team and a coach who is experienced helping fast people become faster. Now picture a 12 year old who uses a wheelchair who likes to go fast. He or she likely cannot afford a racing chair, because one can’t get better at racing quickly in the same chair used to go to math class. Insurance only covers one wheelchair every 5 years, so that’s not a way to get a racing chair. Then, there’s not nearly as easy access to a track team and a coach experienced with wheelchair athletes. The regular track coach at the middle school may or may not be able to help.

The city where I live has two sledge hockey teams, a junior team and a regular team. There are several Paralympians on the regular team. They manage to collect equipment for players so that people can learn the sport. A bunch of my coworkers and I got to play in an exhibition game against the junior team, which is a story in itself I should tell sometime. Before the game they had a workshop for local kids. This is a great program. I’m in a reasonably sized city that is known for hockey. It’s not enough. I can tell you all about the local Special Olympics and Miracle League baseball organizations, which are great inclusive athletic programs, but not where someone in this town can go to play quad rugby, an extremely full-contact sport played largely by people who have already broken their necks once.

So that’s why I’m boycotting the Olympics.

I will, as I have for the past two games, actively seek out the Paralympic coverage. I have seen bits of sitting volleyball and several of the USA sledge hockey games, women’s swimming in the S10 category, and some alpine blind skiing. This year I’m hoping they air some goalball.

I don’t particularly care about who wins, because I don’t particularly care about sport. That’s me being equal opportunity, not because I don’t think winning matters. For a non-athlete like me who boils sports down into “going fast” and “working as a team to prevent the other team from doing a thing” that’s about the best I can manage. For those who know things about sports, they should care more. What about the athleticism of pushing oneself and some metal around a course faster than anyone else in the world, and what about the physics of wheel angles and the difference between a racing wheelchair and a handcycle? How does someone become an elite ARW1 archer? What are the mechanics about swimming when you start in the water rather than on the edge?

My boycott isn’t going to affect the Olympics. I wasn’t going to watch it? Them? Anyway.

But whenever I boycott the Olympics I take the opportunity to tell a few people about the Paralympics who may not have ever heard of it before, or who don’t know the difference between the Paralympics and Special Olympics, or who don’t see it as real sport. This includes many people who work in disability professions, by the way, whose patients and clients may be the next monoski-ing champion if only someone knows where to send them. Don’t believe me? I was a camp counselor in 1998. One of the campers in my cabin was, at 11, the 4th ranked wheelchair racer in her age group nationally. She went on to earn a gold medal in the 2008 summer games. This happened partly because she’s very fast, and partly because she had the opportunity to try wheelchair sports as a young child and subsequent coaching.

And maybe some summer day I will come to work and someone will say, you catch that goalball game last night?

No, of course I haven’t. I don’t follow sports.
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