In this episode, I explore the history and development of the Paralympic Games.
I trace the origins of the Paralympic Games and critically explore how and why the Paralympic Games has developed to be the event we know today. I then consider the relationship between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee, and how this has influenced the development of the Paralympic Games. Finally, the media coverage of Paralympians and the Paralympic Games is discussed.
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Transcript of Disability Sport Info episode, ‘The Paralympic Games: History and Development’
Speaker: Dr Christopher Brown (Presenter – University of Hertfordshire, UK)
Speaker: Dr Ian Brittain (Participant – Coventry University, UK)
Speaker: Professor David Legg (Participant – Mount Royal University, Canada)
Speaker: Professor Sakis Pappous (Participant – Bournemouth University, UK)
[00:00:00] Dr Christopher Brown: Welcome to the Disability Sport Info Show, the podcast that explores academic knowledge about disability sport. My name is Dr. Chris Brown and I'm an academic with an expertise in disability sport. Each episode I focus on a specific topic of disability sport and speak to academic experts to understand the area in more depth.
So join me and listen to the Disability Sport Info Show to get an expert view on disability sport.
In this episode, we'll understand how the Paralympic Games has grown to be the event it is today: widely considered the second largest multi-sport event in the world. I explore the origins and development of the Paralympic Games, consider the relationship between the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee, and review how the media have covered the Paralympic Games.
We begin with a focus on the formation of the Paralympic Games and how it has developed over the years. I caught up with Dr. Ian Brittain, a renowned expert of the Paralympic Games, to discuss the history and development of the Paralympic Games in more detail.
Ian, welcome to the show and thanks for joining me today to discuss the history and development of the Paralympic Games.
Many of our listeners will have heard of the Paralympic Games and be familiar with the format of the event as it is today. What might not be so clear is how and why the Paralympic Games originated. Are you able to explain to our listeners how the Paralympics came about and why there was a need for this event?
[00:01:23] Dr Ian Brittain: Sure. Firstly, thanks for having me. Prior to World War II, there was very limited use of sport as a sort of rehabilitation process, as a recreational process for people with different impairments. There was particularly some for the Deaf, starting in the late 1800s.
Started as and led to the first Silent Games, as they were called, now known as the Deaflympics, in 1924. But what we know as the Paralympics, today, actually came about as a result of World War II unfortunately, prior to World War II, particularly people with spinal cord injuries, were effectively assigned to the scrap heap of life.
They would literally go into a hospital ward, be hidden away behind a curtain and effectively left to die, because the medical knowledge was such that they just couldn't do anything to save them. Gradually that changed with the introduction of things like sulphur drugs. And towards the end of the second World War in 1944, the British government set up a specialist spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital which is about 30 miles north of London in the UK
and they were looking for somebody to run this. And there was a German-Jewish neurologist who had escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 with his family and came to live in Oxford called Ludwig Guttmann. And they offered him the job and he said I'll take it, but only on the terms that I can run this centre how I want to run it.
And he came in and he introduced a lot of new things, such as turning patients every two hours, et cetera, to stop the build-up of pressure sores. Pressure sores were one of the key reasons why they used to die previously because it would lead to sepsis of the blood or they would get kidney failure.
And as part of that process, he actually introduced sport as part of the rehabilitation of these patients. He did that mainly for three reasons. He felt that sport was an excellent and natural way to strengthen the body. It was also a fun way. He always felt that if sport and physical activity wasn't fun, it wouldn't have a positive impact on the patients because it's not just physical, it's mental as well. It's psychological. So you're trying to work on a sort of holistic wellbeing approach, I guess. And also the first sport he introduced as a competitive sport was archery. Which was a great way to strengthen the upper body of a paraplegic who's then gotta push themselves around in a wheelchair.
But also it was a sport where you could, once discharged from Stoke Mandeville and you went home, you could go to your local non-disabled archery club and compete on the same shooting line as the non-disabled archers. So it's a good way of reintegrating people into society. In 1948, on the same day as the opening of the London Olympic Games, he held an exhibition, an archery exhibition between two teams. One from Stoke Mandeville, one from the Star and Garter Home in Richmond upon Thames, to celebrate the donation of a wheelchair accessible bus that could be used to take patients out into the local community. And that became an annual event. So the next year they added wheelchair netball, and wheelchair netball is now what we call wheelchair basketball.
So it started out as a netball post with no backboard, but as it progressed, they added the backboard and it became wheelchair basketball. That became an annual event. And in 1952, the first international team came from abroad, specifically, to take part in those Games. And that became the first International Stoke Mandeville Games.
In 1960, because Guttman was always making links. In his second event, he only had two sports and 36/39 competitors, but he actually said at the closing ceremony, I hope one day that there will be a disabled equivalent of the Olympic Games. Which is an amazing thing to say when you've only got two sports and 36 athletes. But he was proved right. And in 1960, the International Stoke Mandeville Games were moved from Stoke Mandeville, and they occurred in Rome just after the Olympic Games.
And that's now occurred every four years following the Olympic cycle. So we now have the Paralympic Games, and in between, up until the mid-1980s, the Stoke Mandeville Games continued to take place. That in a nutshell is how they got started.
Although the Winter Paralympics didn't start until 1976. So there was a gap between the Summer and Winter Games starting. But that's basically where the Paralympic Games originate from.
[00:07:02] Dr Christopher Brown: Great. Thank you, Ian. I'm sure there'll be some listeners unsure as to why the Paralympic Games are actually called the Paralympic Games. Are you able to explain how the event came to be known as the Paralympic Games, today?
[00:07:14] Dr Ian Brittain: Yeah, it's actually had two meanings, historically. When it first started, and largely because of this constant connection that Guttman kept pushing with the Olympic Games, and the fact that the early Games were only for spinal cord injuries and mainly for paraplegics, it was actually a shortened version of the term Paraplegic Olympics.
Over that period between 1960 and 1976, sports for other impairment groups such as amputees, people with cerebral palsy, blind and visually impaired, also developed alongside, but were not part of the Stoke Mandeville Games. But in 1976, they came together. So you had spinal cord injuries plus other impairment groups. Therefore, Paraplegic Olympics, which had been condensed to Paralympic, was no longer relevant, because there were these other impairment groups. It wasn't just for paraplegics, but they liked the name, and it worked. So rather than discard it completely, they changed the meaning of it to parallel Olympics; running parallel to the Olympic Games.
Nowadays, the term Paralympics actually means parallel to the Olympic Games.
[00:08:52] Dr Christopher Brown: That's interesting. Thanks, Ian. Casual viewers of the Paralympics may not have been aware the event was originally known as the Paraplegic games, rather than the parallel games meaning we know today.
Some of our listeners may have heard of other sporting events disabled people, such as the Special Olympics, Invictus Games, Deaflympics, to name but a few.
Why are these events separate to the Paralympic Games, do you think? And how do they differ from the Paralympics?
[00:09:18] Dr Ian Brittain: There's multiple reasons why they're separate. First and foremost, the Paralympics and the number of athletes allowed at the Paralympics is capped due to the memorandum of understanding they have with the IOC and the Olympic movement. And I think it's about 4,200 athletes currently. So to have every single impairment group at the Games would just be impossible.
So secondly, the Paralympics, and this is in no way meant to be negative about the other events, but the Paralympic Games is about elite sport: it's the very best disabled athletes in the world participating.
Now, if we take something like the Special Olympics, it's for individuals with intellectual disability. They have to have an intellectual disability. They can, in addition to that, have another impairment or multiple impairments. But the primary qualifier for taking part is you have to have an intellectual disability. And it's much more about taking part than being the best of the best. So everybody who takes part gets a ribbon. It's more about sport as recreation, fun, social reintegration, et cetera.
The Invictus Games is for injured and ill military personnel. It also tends to only be for countries on one side of the dividing lines, shall we say. So the sort of Great Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, et cetera. All the sort of what you would call modern day allies. And it covers not just physical injuries or disabilities, but also illnesses. So military veterans, you've had cancer or things like this or actually have cancer, and it's a way of trying to reintegrate military personnel, but actually helping them learn from each other that, the fact that you've lost a limb, isn't the end of everything. Because as a military personnel, they're told they're better than civilians, they're fitter, they're faster, they're stronger. And soon as they get that injury, that identity for them is destroyed. So it's about building back-up confidence, et cetera.
The Deaflympics is obviously for people with hearing impairments, and they were actually part of the Paralympic movement, briefly, in the 1980s, but they have something like 2500/3000 athletes at their Deaflympics. And so if the Paralympics is capped at 4,200, meaning that only a very small number of Deaf people would actually be able to compete at the Paralympic Games.
And there's also a group within the sort of Deaf community that actually claim that Deafness is not a disability. They are a linguistic minority rather than having a disability. And the problem is that what we would call non-disabled society or hearing people can't sign. And that's the issue. Otherwise they are just like you and I, physically.
[00:13:06] Dr Christopher Brown: So lots of different events that have their own histories and identities. I think we're clearer now why these events are separate from the Paralympics, so thank you for that. Ian, as an expert of the Paralympic Games, what would you say have been the major developments that have contributed to the event we know today?
[00:13:22] Dr Ian Brittain: I guess obviously if we hadn't had a German-Jewish neurosurgeon, who had to escape Nazi Germany in 1939. If we hadn't had the Second World War and lots of spinal cord injuries due to falling masonry or shrapnel wounds, we may not have the Paralympics today, as we know it. Because it was down to Gutman to develop it.
But I think probably the biggest development, and it does lead on from, as I said, Gutman kept pushing this link with the Olympic movement, but that link became really strong from about 1988 onwards, where the Paralympic games returned to being hosted by the Olympic host city. And being held two weeks after the Olympic Games. And that's occurred every Games since 1988.
For a variety of reasons between 1968 and 1984, the Paralympics were held in other cities or other countries to the Olympic Games. But what that did do, this link with the Olympic movement, I think was raise awareness of the Paralympic movement. And so what you see is up until 1988, the sort of addition of new countries to the Paralympics was relatively flat. The curve was quite shallow. But from 1988 onwards, it was almost exponential. So I think in 1984, we had roughly about 45 countries participate in the Paralympic Games. In Seoul in 1988, it was 60. And by the time we'd reached London in 2012, we were up to 164 nations. And if you look at it as a graph, it it's fairly flat and then all of a sudden, it's like exponential growth.
So I think that and that link to the IOC and the Olympic movement became formalised in Sydney in 2000, where they signed their first memorandum of understanding. And that has helped greatly in terms of solidifying the importance of the Paralympic Games and the awareness of the Paralympic Games, particularly within the sporting community on the world stage.
That's also led to an increase in media coverage because the more media coverage you get, the more awareness you get of it, and then maybe the more people actually want to be part of it.
I think there's also been an increase in an understanding of the way that different impairments impact on sports participation, and that in itself is allowed for the development of the classification process, which is constantly changing to try and make competition fair without having to, you know, going back to the sort of 1980s/early 90s, where the view was all you had to do was turn up at the Paralympic Games to win a medal, because there was like 30 different hundred meter races. Now, we're much smaller due to the way the classification has enabled people to be grouped together but still keep the competition fair. And there's also been a development of technology, allowing people to participate. Still keeping it fair, you know, but allowing, say, a double below the knee amputee now got two prosthetics that actually allow them to run or sprint. Whereas go back 40 years that didn't really exist.
[00:17:34] Dr Christopher Brown: I'd like to end this discussion by turning to the future of the event, if I may. In your opinion, what are the main issues facing the future development of the Paralympic Games as an elite sport event?
[00:17:46] Dr Ian Brittain: I guess because of the close link to the Olympic movement; it does mean that the Paralympics are affected by anything that happens to the Olympic movement or the Olympic Games.
So, two examples. We are getting less and less cities wanting to bid to host the Olympic Games. They're not just hosting the Olympic Games anymore because if you bid to host the Olympic Games, you must also host the Paralympic Games. So effectively that means there's less cities wanting to host the Games, as in both. So that could have a negative impact on the development of the Paralympic Games. We saw in Rio, there's still also a difference in perceived value of the Olympic and the Paralympic Games, because, in Rio, they actually used the whole of the Paralympic Games budget to save the Olympic Games because of all sorts of building issues. So they spent the whole of the Paralympic Games budget, and we were actually three days from the Paralympic Games being cancelled in Rio. And it wasn't until it was pointed out to the Brazilian government how embarrassing this would be for them, that they stepped in and saved the Paralympic Games. But it was very much paired down. There were a lot of things you could see were not happening in Rio behind the scenes , because I was there myself, that usually occurred at a Paralympic Games. So it was still done on a much lower budget, but at least they saved it. But it does highlight that perceived difference between the two Games.
I guess the other thing is, the IOC Memorandum of Understanding restricts the number of athletes at the Paralympic Games to around 4,200 compared to the sort of 10,000 athletes at the Olympic Games. So that does restrict development opportunities for the Paralympic Games, in terms of new sports or new events within sports. Because if you add something, you have to subtract somewhere else in order to stay within the 4,200.
And I guess, less about the Paralympic games, but more on a national level, I think the environmental and attitudinal barriers faced by disabled people in different countries around the world vary greatly, but they can prevent access to sporting opportunities. And I'm talking about at a grassroots level. But if you are not getting disabled people taking part in a sport at grassroots level, you're not gonna have future Paralympians.
[00:20:50] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Thank you, Ian. It really has been great to learn more about how the Paralympics has grown and developed to be the event it is today.
So thank you ever so much for taking the time to speak with me and I really look forward to catching up with you soon.
*** Discussion ends ***
Associate professor, Dr. Ian Brittain there, with a really thorough and interesting look at how the Paralympic Games originated and developed. So I hope you, listener, have learned some new things there as a result of our conversation.
We now turn our attention to the relationship between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee. To do so, we will speak with Professor David Legg, who will explain to us how the relationship between the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee has changed and developed over the years, and what this means for the management of the Paralympic Games.
Professor David Legg, thank you for joining us today on this show and welcome.
Many of our listeners will probably be aware of the International Olympic Committee, but they may be less familiar with the International Paralympic Committee. Please, can you explain how and why the International Paralympic Committee, known as the IPC, was established and what its main functions are?
[00:22:06] Professor David Legg: First of all, Chris, thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be chatting with you today.
The IPC itself wasn't formally founded until 1989, so the genesis of the movement started far earlier following World War II, and a number of disability specific organisations were created, such as the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sport Federation, which focused only on athletes with spinal injuries.
And then there were a number of other, again, disability specific organisations such as those for cerebral palsy, those for persons experiencing visual impairment, Deafness, et cetera, emerged throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And as many of your listeners will recall, the genesis of the Stoke Mandeville Games, which followed shortly after World War II, Sir Ludwig Guttmann hosted the first archery competition on the grass lawn of Stoke Mandeville, on the same day as the opening ceremonies of the London Olympic Games.
So even from the very earliest aspect of the Paralympic movement, there was this connection to the Olympic Games. And in 1960, again which Ian will talk about, when the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome. Again, it was trying to mimic and parallel the Olympic movement because the Games were also held there.
So moving forward throughout the 1970s, there were some opportunities where Paralympic Games, or they weren't called that necessarily. So for instance, in Toronto they were referred to as the Toronto Olympiad for the Physically Disabled, there was connections to the Olympic movement. But it really wasn't until the 1980s when this more deliberate and systematic connection to the IOC and the Olympic movement started to take place.
And so Dr. Robert Steadward, who was my supervisor for my PhD at the University of Alberta in Canada at that time, was the head of the Canadian group called CFSOD, the Canadian Federation of Sport Organisations for the Disabled. And it was an umbrella organisation that represented all the disability specific organisations in Canada.
He submitted and circulated a proposal and a number of other people submitted similar proposals globally, trying to suggest an umbrella organisation that could represent all of these disability specific international organisations. In part because the IOC was having difficulties in trying to communicate with all these different organisations, and they had requested that for the purposes of future partnerships and for having a better working relationship, that they would prefer to have one umbrella organisation from which to communicate and connect with.
So that was part of the motivation. And in 1987, all of the disability sport groups met in Arnhem. It was referred to as the Arnhem Seminars and their seven kind of founding principles were identified. And then over a two year period these were negotiated. And at the same time, the Paralympic Games took place in Seoul, Korea in 1988.
And those Games were significant in that they're seen by some as the start of the modern Paralympic Movement, whereby the Paralympic Games were held in the same city, in the same kind of venues as the Olympic Games. That had happened somewhat off and on prior to that, but not in a systematic or consistent way.
And so these games in 1988 in Korea are happening, which really set the precedent for hosting Games in the same city, in the same venues. The international groups had met in 1987 in Arnhem, the Netherlands. And then in 1989 in Dusseldorf, Germany, was the founding of what was called the International Paralympic Committee.
Dr. Steadward, whom I mentioned earlier, was elected as their first president, and he held that role for three terms, which was the maximum number of terms you could hold until 2001 just after the Sydney Games. So that was the creation of the International Paralympic Committee. And today the Paralympic games are, I think, arguably the second largest multi-sport of event in the world.
Again, just to put a time on this podcast, we'll be starting shortly in Tokyo.
[00:26:36] Dr Christopher Brown: It sounds like it's taken some time to form the IPC as an umbrella organisation, and that there were already a number of individual organisations representing a variety of interest groups in existence before the IPC was established.
I'm not sure if you'll be in a position to answer this, but what were the politics like, trying to form the IPC and to try and get all of these individual organizations to fall behind the IPC?
[00:27:03] Professor David Legg: I think there were some significant challenges. Wheelchair sport is seen as, in some respects, as the founding disability group within the Paralympic Movement.
And there, Sir Ludwig Guttmann actually created a second group, ISOD, I believe was the name, to be responsible for athletes who didn't have spinal cord injuries. The Deaf sport community was actually a founding member of the IPC, but quickly chose to leave that collective, in part over arguments, I think, as to whether or not there would be sign language interpreters provided at Games.
And some would argue that was a funding issue. But I guess people within the Deaf community would argue that's a fundamental human rights issue. And so there was a decision to leave the IPC founding collective. I would say, and it even happens I think a bit in today's standards, some have argued that there's a bit of a pecking order almost, and certainly from a media perspective, within the disability context. And so those athletes who have prosthetics and amputations and those who are, in the really sexy sporting wheelchairs, the racing wheelchairs in particular or wheelchair basketball, are the ones who are portrayed more frequently and more prominently compared to athletes with, for instance, cerebral palsy or perhaps visual impairments.
I can't speak to the evidence of that, but that seems to be something that I think has been demonstrated. And I suspect that was clearly involved in the initial merger of all these groups too. And the fear of one dominating the others insofar as perhaps size or prestige or scope.
Perhaps some groups thinking that the others weren't as sophisticated or as advanced perhaps in their development of their systems and their high performance standards, et cetera. But so again, not having been there when these conversations took place, I can't speak to personal experience, but I certainly suspect and presume that there were significant political challenges to bring these groups together to form one unifying group.
And I think it's also important to remember that there was no headquarters then. There was no staff. This was all purely done on the backs of volunteers. And also too in the mid to late eighties, telecommunications were significantly different than they are by today's standards.
And to think that they were able to pull that off, actually, is rather remarkable.
[00:29:56] Dr Christopher Brown: Yep. It's very difficult to comprehend now, but 1980s was a very different time when it came to personal communications and telecommunications. Completely different age than it is now. So quite a logistical challenge, I imagine, to try and get all of those organisations on the same page and working with each other to form the IPC.
The IPC, as we know, was established in 1989, so if we cycle through 10 or so years, we reach the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And this is a really important time in the development of the Paralympic Games because it was in 2000 when there was the first official agreement between the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee to host both the Olympics and the Paralympics in the same city.
This agreement was updated in 2001 but has been the basis for future Olympic and Paralympic Games, where host cities are obligated to also host the Paralympic Games after the Olympic Games. I believe many commentators would probably argue this has been a very big turning point in the development of the Paralympic Games.
Having the backing of the International Olympic Committee has enabled the Paralympics to grow. So with all of this in mind, in terms of the Paralympic Games, how would you, David, describe the relationship between the IOC and IPC? To what extent can the IPC influence the development of the Paralympics, do you think?
[00:31:26] Professor David Legg: That's a very interesting question. And leading up you mentioned that the first kind of official agreement was signed in 2000, so just following the Sydney Paralympic Games. But I think it's important to remember, again, it was a bit of a bumpy road even to get to that point.
So the Games in Atlanta in 1996 were somewhat challenging in the relationship between the host organising committee that managed the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. And I think the Sydney Games then turned that ship around and did a remarkable job. And many would argue that was a bit of a turning point for the IOC to see the potential and opportunity of working with an IPC.
And it really wasn't even until, I think Beijing, the Games in 2008 were the first that actually fell under the auspices of that agreement that was signed in 2000. And then it was updated in 2001 and it's been updated three or four times I think even since then, and now continues until now to 2032. So the games in Brisbane will be the Games this current agreement relate to.
But the interesting aspect, and this has only really been in the last year or so, that I think is not gonna complicate this relationship, but I think could in influence and impact it, is this global focus on EDI, equity, diversity, and inclusion. And so part of the agreement and part of the partnership with the IOC and the IPC is in relation to marketing. And so the top sponsorship groups, like the P&Gs of the world, the Toyotas of the world, et cetera. In part the IOC I think recognised and in part, I think it was connected to the 2012 Games that were held in London, where Sainsbury's, the grocery store chain, decided to only sponsor the Paralympic Games versus the Olympic Games. And actually, I think did rather well from a brand recognition strategy. And if I recall correctly, I think Sainsbury's was recognised as the third most popular brand, insofar as sponsoring the Olympics and Paralympics when they only sponsored the Paralympics. And so potentially you could argue that the IOC and their sponsors recognised that the Paralympic Games were starting to have an impact from a financial perspective, or at least they recognised that could have an impact.
And so the agreement was signed before these last, I would say last year, where this idea of EDI really came to the forefront, certainly from a North American context, and I presume from an international one. But, in watching the Olympic Games here in Canada, anyways, the commercials, I was blown away with a number of individuals with disabilities that were included in commercials for the Olympic Games. And so there clearly is this recognition from a corporate sponsorship perspective of the importance of reflecting the diversity within our populations.
And I think the IOC, I don't know, again, if they were just lucky in that they decided to negotiate this marketing agreement prior to this becoming more prominent or if they were smart about it, but the timing I think really works in the IOC's favour. Because it certainly seems to me that this focus on, again, these ideas of belonging, inclusiveness, diversity, have really taken hold in a good way, in my opinion. And the IOC is benefiting from the relationship now to the IPC, in being able to say that they are really addressing this, and focusing and partnering with a group that is the world leader within a disability context.
I think this relationship, though, could potentially even become closer as a result of this. So then I guess the questions then become what happens in the future with the two? Do they become one and the same? And so for instance, in the United States, and I think there's five nations that now have done this, they merged the United States Olympic Committee and the United States Paralympic Committee into one organisation now the USOPC. In Canada, we have not done that. So we still have a Canadian Olympic Committee and a Canadian Paralympic Committee. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no discussions or conversations formally to bring them to together. But I think there are five nations that have done it. I think the Netherlands, I think Germany, I think South Africa, maybe that's the future. Of an IOC/IPC merger where they actually do, in fact, become one in the same. And this has just been a very long evolution of those connections between the two organisations.
[00:36:09] Dr Christopher Brown: Really interesting. David. Yeah. Thank you for that.
I'm just curious, if the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee decided that they wanted the Paralympics under the same umbrella organisation, what do you think would happen to the Paralympics?
Do you think the Paralympics would still be able to fulfil its current mission, its current ethos? What would happen if the Paralympics were subsumed by the Olympics? Would there still be equal opportunities for Paralympians to participate at the elite stage? Do we think, obviously this is all hypothetical, but I'm just curious to get your opinions and insights about this.
So what are your thoughts about what would happen to the Paralympics if it was under one umbrella organisation?
[00:36:59] Professor David Legg: And perhaps there's a bit of a parallel with women in the Olympic movement to people living with disabilities, if it was to merge into the Olympic movement. And so the Olympic Games, I think in Tokyo were arguably the first Olympic Games that were gender equal, as far as numbers of competitors. And certainly from a Canadian context, many of our medallists were women. And so they had tremendous media coverage, portrayal, again in a national context. And so the Olympic Games were an excellent platform by which to profile high performance by female athletes in a Canadian context.
And again, I don't know if that's necessarily true on a global scale, but that's taken time. So the Olympic Games are 130 years old , the modern Olympic Games. And so it's taken that time to get to that point. Again, at the same time, paralleling social change; women only ran in the marathon, I think in 1984, for the first time.
So the changes to how women were portrayed and participated in the Olympic Games, in some cases led, in some cases followed, social changes. And so potentially this could happen in a Paralympic context too. And so I guess there's always the fear that if a smaller organisation is subsumed into a larger one, it could get lost, and the profile side of it and the impact side of it, could be missed.
But over time, that could also be the opposite. And so if there were one Olympic Games, part of the argument as to why you wouldn't want to have a merger is that you would lose all of these sporting opportunities for the Paralympic athletes. But maybe there's a way just to have one giant umbrella organisation. And you don't even call it the Paralympic Games, and maybe it's an Olympic Games for persons experiencing a disability. In the same way that you don't have a female Olympics; it's the Olympic Games.
And the only differentiator is really disability versus able-bodied in that sense. Now there are also cons to that. So I'm not saying that I'm necessarily a proponent of that, but I think it's an option. And I think it’s something a lot of people are considering.
So I think there's pros and cons to a possible merger and moving forward, Chris, in that regard.
[00:39:36] Dr Christopher Brown: Again, we obviously don't know because we're not actively involved within the IPC ourselves, but where do you see the IPC standing on this debate at the moment? Would they be open to the idea of one big event including both Olympic and Paralympic athletes, or would the IPC prefer to retain some control over their event and their identity?
Naturally, this is difficult for you to answer, but I'm just curious as to your take on this, really?
[00:40:03] Professor David Legg: So, yeah, to your point, I don't know. And I guess from a theoretical and hypothetical perspective, you could see that some people perhaps within the Paralympic Movement would be wary, again, of being subsumed under a larger organisation. And so a loss of control, a loss of ability to focus and make decisions that specifically benefit those experiencing disability. So I think there would be certainly some reticence and some hesitancy.
But, at the same time, there would also likely be others who could see it as a tremendous opportunity to expand the reach. The numbers of individuals that watch the Olympic Games versus those that watch the Paralympic games are different. And I think it's tough to argue against that. Now, again, viewership of the Paralympic Games is increasing, and so then it becomes a question of, if we gave it more time, maybe, actually, the Paralympic Games will at some point get to the same level as the Olympic Games, from a marketing reach.
And deciding to merge with the Olympic Games, you don't wanna maybe do it too soon for fear that, had you waited another eight years or another couple of quads, you would've actually gotten to that same level of marketing prowess. So it's hard to say.
A lot of these things, I guess, are driven by finances. And so if the Toyotas of the world, if the P&Gs of the world were to say, we want this to be one thing, we think this is something that we value. We want to be under one umbrella. Maybe that's the driver of it. Simply from a corporate simplicity and a corporate desire perspective.
[00:41:57] Dr Christopher Brown: If we're thinking about the IPC's ability to grow the Paralympics in the future, to what extent do you think they're able to do this, given the current relationship and contractual obligations they have with the IOC?
[00:42:12] Professor David Legg: It's hard to know.
So, I can't speak to the minutiae of the agreement, and so I don't know the details. And again, the specific elements of it, but I guess there's a couple of things. Requiring the Paralympic Games to be after the Olympic Games. Some could argue that is a detriment to the marketing and to the promotions of the Games and getting people. Because some have argued that there's this, almost this burnout, even from the media going to the Games themselves. Now, with the pandemic being what it is, most of the people are staying in their home countries anyways and just doing the media side of stuff from the international feed. So maybe that won't have as big of an impact in current or future Games. But I think also from a spectator's perspective, and so the Paralympic Games, in a North American context, are being held at the same time as like the US open, the start of college football, the start of the NFL. And so they're under more challenging circumstances to attract eyeballs than the Olympic Games were a few weeks ago.
Just even that aspect of it could have an impact on the marketing side of things. But I do think coming back to this corporate piece, it seems to me that the international corporate partners, again, the Cokes, the Bridgestone tyres, they're really wanting to push these messages and these images. And so I think the relationship works in the favour of the Paralympic Games and the Paralympic Movement, insofar as connecting with individuals who might not normally seek out to watch disability sport, but because they're seeing it through the lens of the commercial partners, that may then entice them to be like, oh, that's interesting. Maybe I'll pay attention and check that out.
I would say the other piece of it too, and the Olympics are aware of this, is that people are wanting to differentiate and find unique and interesting sporting competitions. And so the inclusion of 3-on-3 basketball, the sport climbing, the skateboarding, is the IOC's ways of trying to do that.
And I think disability sport is another example of that perhaps, where the IOC can say, hey, if you thought it was interesting to see somebody do this, maybe you'll also find it really interesting to see somebody do this. Because it's not the normal football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, the more traditional sports, that people are more familiar with.
So I think there's opportunities there to portray sport, but in fascinating and interesting ways.
[00:45:05] Dr Christopher Brown: As an expert in the field, David, I'm interested in some concluding thoughts from yourself about what the relationship in the future, between the IPC and the IOC, might look like?
[00:45:16] Professor David Legg: Yeah. If I had to put money down, I would say that the relationship becomes closer between the two organisations. Similar to, again, it's a slow evolution of inclusion within a sporting context. And so in Canada, in the late 1990s, the national sport organisations like Swimming Canada were suddenly asked to become responsible for athletes with a disability. And some accepted the challenge. Some did not. And it happened over, and it's continuing to happen now, 22, 23 years later. The Commonwealth Games are another interesting kind of parallel example. So in 94, when the games were in Victoria in Canada, there were some events for athletes with disabilities. The next Games in Kuala Lumpur, those events were taken off. And then in 2002 when the Games were in Manchester, they were added back in and now they are part of the sport programme. Every Commonwealth Games, so the Games coming up in Birmingham, will include, I think it's six events for athletes experiencing disability.
And so you're seeing this slow evolution of a merger between the two. I could see the same thing happening at the international level. Now, whether or not that means the IPC ceases to exist? I don't know that. And if that were to happen, I think that's still a long ways off. But I could see that the two organisations continue to work closer and closer together, whether that's on marketing, on fund development, on sport development.
So when solidarity funding is used to promote grassroots sport development in nations, it's for everybody. Persons who experience disability and also persons who are able-bodied. So I could see examples of that continuing to move forward, and there becoming an even closer and close relationship, much similar to what I talked about with the United States and the USOPC.
And what I could see happening is that broadcasters start, not demanding it, but encouraging it. Sponsors start, again, not demanding it, but encouraging it. They'll say to the IOC, if we're gonna be a top sponsor, we also want funding to go to these issues related to EDI, which would include Paralympic athletes.
And so the interrelationships between the two organisations will only continue to grow.
[00:47:37] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Really interesting stuff. David, thank you for taking the time to speak about the relationship between the IPC and the IOC, in terms of the management of the Paralympic Games. I know I've learned a lot from our conversation and I hope you, listener, have also learned more as a result of this conversation.
Thank you ever so much, David. I really look forward to catching up with you soon and thank you again for being on the show.
[00:48:01] Professor David Legg: My absolute pleasure.
*** Discussion ends ***
[00:48:02] Dr Christopher Brown: Our final section of the podcast focuses on how the media has covered the Paralympic Games and Paralympians themselves. To help us understand this area of research, I'm pleased to welcome Professor Dr. Sakis Pappous to the show, who will be discussing the media coverage of Paralympians and the Paralympic Games.
Sakis, welcome to the show and thank you for joining me today to discuss the media coverage of the Paralympic Games. In the UK, we've recently had the most broadcast hours of any Paralympic Games in history.
We have Channel 4 and it's sister platforms broadcasting live coverage and on demand programmes of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. I'm interested in your perspective, however, Sakis, as an expert in the field, how would you summarise our understanding of how athletes with disabilities have been portrayed in the media?
[00:48:56] Professor Sakis Pappous: Thank you, Chris.
First of all, let's agree that the Paralympic Games is not just a minor event. Paralympic Games is basically the second largest sport event in the world. However athletes with disabilities are scarcely visible in most of the countries, European and international media. News coverage rarely happens, and quite often is misguided and tends to perpetuate negative stereotypes.
So this is the overall picture. Of course, the situation is different depending on the cultural context, and there are some countries where positive change is happening. And UK is one of them. Channel 4 in the UK has played and continues to play a crucial role producing images and discourses focusing on the athletes in sporting terms, presenting them as superhuman: promoting a change in the rhetoric, in the discourse. They are adopting a discourse that is designed to stress that these are athletes and they do not deserve our sympathy. But we should focus on the admiration for the amazing achievements and performances.
Two things are changing progressively. There is a study that has been conducted by some of my colleagues here in Bournemouth University, which was published recently in 2020, based on large scale qualitative audience targeting UK audience perception of the Paralympics. And this study's demonstrated how audience internalise socially progressive ideas nowadays towards disability in line with Channel 4's broad broadcasting strategy. So in this study, it was observed that London 2012 resulted in a greater awareness of disability rights based discourses.
In the nutshell, just to summarise my thoughts, is that change, positive change, is happening. It's not uniform. There are places in the world that media representation of disabled people still very problematic. I spent seven months in Brazil before Rio 2016, and I had the opportunity to analyse some data there. I observed that there's still a lot of stereotypes involving fragility, illness, and pity, in Brazil. And in generally in Latin America, these stereotypes are reinforced by something famous there. Some TV spectacles called Teletons, are basically charitable marathons tended to raise funds in favour of the disabled. So in this period that I've spent in Brazil, I noticed that the media, they're focusing too much there in on the accident, on the tragic element of the story behind the scenes. And they do not focus so much on the performance and they still try to evoke sentiments of sympathy, even pity, I would say. So, there's still a long way to go from my understanding.
[00:52:07] Dr Christopher Brown: A lot of the negative stereotypes you've referred to would be athletes in passive rather than active poses. So rather than highlighting the sporting ability and athletic prowess of the athlete, imagery would usually focus on athletes as passive and focusing too much on the impairment rather than the sporting achievement.
Are there any other examples from the negative stereotypes that you reference that we should be aware of that have been used to cover Paralympians and the Paralympic Games?
[00:52:38] Professor Sakis Pappous: Yeah. What you just mentioned is the most problematic one. The focus is still, instead of focusing on the performers and their achievement, just focusing on elements that they are peripheral, that are not so important. So sometimes journals around the world, instead of doing sport kind of coverage, they do a social kind of report focusing on elements that are not related to sport. Whether an athlete is having a job, or how they became disabled, if they are married or not. Some sort of, in academia we call this trivialisation or infantilisation. So those are themes that we have borrowed from studies focusing on gender in sport. So in a way, the position that the media are representing resembles a little bit on how female athletes used to be portrayed in Western let's say media 30 years ago, focusing on aspects different than the athletic ones.
[00:53:54] Dr Christopher Brown: You mentioned earlier you were in Brazil for the Rio 2016 Games as part of your project in educating the media how to cover the Paralympians and Paralympic Games. So that leads on nicely to my next question, which is, to what extent does hosting the Paralympics influence the media's coverage of Paralympians and the Paralympic Games, do you think?
[00:54:18] Professor Sakis Pappous: I would say that the Games are getting bigger and bigger. And as the Games grow in size, their transformational effect and impact on society is also increasing. So there is evidence from studies that some of my colleagues have done, and also from some of the studies that I have conducted, there is evidence that the nations that host the games, there is a strong track record change in in deep rooted beliefs regarding disability.
The Games are acting as a catalyst for changing the approach to social inclusion in the countries when the games are held. I've conducted a study focusing on Athens 2004 where the number of pictures and papers and articles dedicated in the newspapers, was tripled when the Brits hosted the Games.
So in terms of quantity, there's definitely more space dedicated when the Paralympic Games are taking place in your own country. Now, we have to be careful because quantity is not always similar to quality. For example, when I recall some of the images that I've analysed during Athens 2004, still more pictures, more images, more papers, but old stigmas still persist.
What comes to my mind is a photograph there with a title, 'with the eyes of the soul', referring to gold medallist in javelin. So again, from this title, we understand that the focus it is on the sentimental aspect, on how those disabled athletes overcame their disability, instead of focusing on the record or how far he threw the javelin. And 'with the eyes of the soul' because it was an athlete who was blamed.
[00:56:19] Dr Christopher Brown: I think this will be my final question. As I know you're a bit tight for time for this interview today, but I'd like to focus on the supercrip narrative that has been mentioned in the media coverage of the Paralympics and Paralympians in the academic literature. For our listeners, are you able to explain what is meant by the supercrip narrative and why it is considered such a contested notion?
[00:56:42] Professor Sakis Pappous: Okay. So this is a central point of discussion in academic circles that is getting more and more important, the supercrip narrative. So this is a narrative that involves presenting the person with disabilities as heroic by performing achievements that normally are considered not possible for people with disabilities. And this involves a representation of a person living a normal life in spite of disability. And this, 'in spite', is the problematic aspect of that. I mentioned earlier Channel 4, and Channel 4 in the UK is relying on and using this marketing approach for the Games, presenting Paralympians as having superhuman capabilities of being successful, despite their disability.
So some researchers in our field, we argue that this type of representation generates prejudice in the sense that they are perceived as incapable of doing them. So the problem with this form of media representation is that it highlights that the expectations that able-bodied people have of persons with a disability are low, are very low.
So based on my understanding of the literature, a problem now and what is missing there, and this is my opinion as a humble researcher in this field, is that we need more research, more evidence. And we need also to listen to the voice of disabled people as well. Is this kind of narrative a very negative one? And for whom? Is it for us, the academics? What do people with disabilities believe about this narrative? There are some studies out there, but we need more. We have to listen to the voice of disabled people. And this is what is needed. Some co-creation of a narrative that is powerful.
I mentioned earlier gender studies. A phrase that comes from gender studies is, ‘nothing about us, without us'. So this is what we need also. We have to listen to the voice and include the voice of the Paralympic athletes and disabled people. How would they like to be portrayed?
So sometimes, we academics, perhaps have to be a little bit, let's say, we have to be a bit more sceptical of what is positive and negative. And we need more evidence from those people. Self-identification. How do they identify? How would they like to be portrayed? They know better. We should try to include their voice. And we need more studies simply asking them what is the ideal pictorial representation? Or how would you like to be referred to? What kind of stories would you like to ask to privilege? That's a summary of my thoughts.
[00:59:52] Dr Christopher Brown: Excellent. Thank you, Sakis. I think we'll end it there. It's a nice way to conclude the discussion. And also, we have no time left in the interview, so we will conclude it there.
And I thank you ever so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I know I've learned a lot from our conversation, and I hope you, listener, have also learned a lot from our discussion about the media coverage of Paralympic Games and the Paralympians. Thanks Sakis. And I really look forward to catching up with you soon.
[01:00:19] Professor Sakis Pappous: Thank you, Chris.
[01:00:19] Dr Christopher Brown: Cheers.
[01:00:20] Professor Sakis Pappous: Bye-bye.
*** Discussion ends ***
[01:00:21] Dr Christopher Brown: That's all we have time for today. Thank you for listening to the show. I'd like to thank Ian, David, and Sakis for their contribution for today's podcast. And I hope you, listener, have taken some insights and knowledge away about how the Paralympic Games began and has developed to be what it is today.
And in the next episode, we'll be looking at the impact that the Paralympic Games can have on disabled people generally. So in the next episode about the Paralympic Games, we're gonna be focusing on the issue of legacy, and what legacies, in terms of sport participation legacies, are possible from the Paralympic Games. As well as the empowerment potential of the Paralympic Games.
So please stay tuned for the next instalment of the Disability Sport Info Show, where we'll be focusing on those two issues related to the Paralympic Games. Thank you for listening, and I'll catch you soon.
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