The London 2012 Paralympic Games are almost over. Most races and events have been run and won. Australia has done amazingly well given the relatively small contingent of 161 athletes representing us against some of the bigger teams we are competing with. As a nation, Australia have, at the time of writing, scored a total of 25 gold, 18 silver and 26 bronze, a phenomenal haul, putting us 5th on the medal tally, happily just ahead of the United States of America. The only teams ahead of us are China way out in front, the host nation Great Britain even in gold medals with Russia but ahead on the overall count and Ukraine ahead of us by two.
At just 5:30am in the morning on the 30th of August Australian time, a total of 347,000 Australians woke up to tune into the Opening Ceremony of the London Paralympics, giving the station some of its strongest ratings ever. These relatively high viewing numbers have continued throughout the coverage of the events during the 7-11:00pm timeslot on the ABC’s digital television station ABC2. The Paralympics have also continued to be shown on ABC1 for the finals sessions, occurring from 4am in the morning AEST.
But aside from the prolific medal-winning performances of our Paralympians in London, the biggest and most important element of the Paralympics is the effects that it is having back here at home on the Australian population.
The Paralympic Games, with such in-depth coverage give the opportunity for transformative effects on the Australian population, in particular the way in which people with a disability are viewed in Australia. All too often those with a disability are viewed by some ‘able-bods’ as having little worth and something to gawk at when we dare venture out into the community to live our lives to the best of our boundless abilities.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent times within the disability community about the word inspiration and particularly about so-called ‘inspiration porn’, that is, images of people with a disability with slogans meant to tug at the heartstrings. A lot of that has been viewed by those who have a disability with disdain.
Equally too and relevant directly to the 2012 Paralympics, words such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘amazing’ have been used to excess in describing the astonishing feats of our elite athletes with a disability. These comments again from some in the disability community have drawn equal condemnation to that which inspiration porn has attracted.
Many want our Paralympians to be seen as no different to our Olympians. They are elite sportspeople getting out of bed early and often to train to the highest level in their chosen sport. They don’t want to be seen as having done something any different to that of athletes without an impairment.
In the case of the Paralympics though, is it fair to view people commenting about the achievements of our Paralympic athletes with the kind of annoyance of that in relation to inspiration porn?
Recently, our Olympians had their shot at glory and in the early days of the Games, didn’t have as much success as was expected. But then we came good in the latter stages of the event to at least gain a respectable finish.
The superlatives flew in the final days of the competition with the strong performances we recorded, particularly in events we weren’t expected to excel in after under-performing in those we were. During the Olympic Games in London the words ‘inspirational’ and ‘extraordinary’ and just about any other superlative in existence were used to describe our Olympic athletes too.
So in this sense, we aren’t treating athletes with a disability any differently to athletes that do not. We might use a different degree of vigour in describing the efforts of our Paralympians, but for all intents and purposes they’re being referred to in exactly the same way as their Olympic counterparts.
We as Australians find our sportsmen and women inspiring. Sport is so entwined in our culture that we elevate those that show immense sporting prowess to a g0d-like status. Now that might be right or wrong, but that’s what happens and that is now happening to a similar extent with the broader commentary that our Paralympic athletes have been subjected to since the London Paralympics began.
That doesn’t mean that the occasional over-enthusiastic labelling of a Paralympian’s effort hasn’t occurred during the coverage of the Paralympic Games. It probably has. But is this automatically a bad thing?
Disability in Australia, as mentioned earlier, is not viewed as favourably and treated as equally as it is in particularly European countries and in the UK as anecdotal evidence has shown over the past week and a bit. So any change in the Australian mindset that results from this more in-depth broadcasting of the most elite of disabled sporting events should be viewed as a positive.
The fact that our Paralympic athletes are now being referred to as inspirational and amazing signals at least a small shift in the perceptions of disability and it would be great if this continued to pervade the Australian political, social and cultural discourse.
It shouldn’t particularly matter how the minds of Australians are changed when viewing disability, providing that people aren’t condescending pricks when they talk to or about someone with a disability, what should matter is that the change itself is occurring.
So let’s embrace the inspirational, amazing, fantastic exploits of our Paralympic heroes, perhaps then, through maintained or increased exposure, we’ll begin to experience the change in thinking that we want to see.
Today the Australian Swimming Championships, doubling as the Olympic selection trials began for our prospective Olympians this morning in Adelaide. The event has been shrouded in hype, misplaced a lot of it, around former greats attempting to make a comeback at the London 2012 Olympic Games just months away. Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim, Libby Trickett and Geoff Huegill, the latter having already made a successful comeback to international competition are vying for one of two spots in each Olympic event.
But there is another selection trial going on that has been so under-reported that it is almost shrouded in secrecy because reports about it have been so sparse and that is the selection trials for our current and hopeful Paralympic athletes, those people with a disability, paid little or nothing who also perform at an elite level but are in an eclipse like shadow behind their highly paid Olympian counterparts.
These so-called Elite Athletes with a Disability, EAD for short or Athletes with a Disability (AWD) will take part in events daily over the time of the trials in both heats and finals.
It is worth explaining how the competition usually works at this event for our athletes attempting selection in the Australian Paralympic team. Athletes with a disability are broken down into different classifications according to the extent of their disability and their ability to move and are assessed by accredited classifiers into these groups.
At the trials athletes compete in heats which are usually seeded according to comparable times in each respective event. For each classification there is a world record and all athletes are effectively racing to get as close to the world record for their classification in each event. The 8 closest swimmers to a world record will then compete in the final.
In the final, the three medallists are judged in the same way as places in the final are determined. That means that the three closest people to a world record will win a gold, silver or bronze medal accordingly.
Our Paralympic athletes are extraordinary people who have had to overcome more than the usual obstacles to achieve the high level representation that they do. Unlike their Olympic friends, EAD athletes have to overcome limitations from their disability too. The wonderful thing is that Athletes with a Disability at the highest level often train the same amount as elite athletes or so-called “able-bods”, so they are training with the physical impairment to the same extent as other elite athletes.
Anyone who has been to the Paralympics as a spectator will have left with a newfound respect and admiration for the abilities and achievements of people with a disability. You will encounter swimmers from south-east Asia who have lost limbs, sometimes, double-arm amputees gliding through the water like dolphins and then at the end needing to slam their heads with substantial force into the touchpads to register a time.
You are urged to tune into the evening broadcast of the finals on the Ten Network, where if previous events are any indication, at least some of the AWD events will be broadcast over the week of competition. The London 2012 Paralympics too are a must watch from the 29th of August to the 9th of September in London to be broadcast on both ABC television and radio.
So there is nothing left to do but to get ensconced in the terrific awe-inspiring exploits of those who have it much harder in life than their “able-bodied” counterparts and manage to throw off the metaphorical chains and reach amazing heights.