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Lessons From the Paralympics That Have Been Learnt and Can be Harnessed

The Paralympics have now been over for a bit over half a week. They were a top-class event put together by a masterful organising committee that also had responsibility for that other successful major event, the Olympic Games. Australia did so well. We put together the most successful touring performance of any Australian Paralympic team in history. That performance put us just two gold medals and a number of silver and bronze behind the strongly-funded hosts, Great Britain and just four golds and a handful of minor medals behind second placed Russian Federation.

But far from the phenomenal medal-winning performances and that of all the athletes across all nations involved, the London 2012 Paralympics have taught us some valuable lessons which can be harnessed to facilitate lasting change when it comes to the politics of disability.

Firstly, London put on an amazing show, on an unprecedented scale. These were the highest selling Paralympic Games ever. That mantle looks sure to be safe for quite some time too, perhaps never to be broken, ever. Nearly all of the two and a half million tickets allocated for the Games in London were sold, that makes a huge change to the usually relatively empty stands that our Paralympians tend to have to deal with every four years.

This says that London and Europe in particular “do” disability very well. It shows that people there view disability much more favourably than the much discriminated against and stigmatised disability community here in Australia. This could be a product of many things, but clearly disability and difference experiences a much greater degree of acceptance across Europe. That’s not to say things are great over there, disability has experienced cuts as the economic woes continue in that region.

A large contributing factor is probably how the welfare state is viewed in Europe as compared to Australia. There is less of a stigma to it in that region of the world. Those who rely on it are not discriminated against as much and are viewed as needing it and entitled to it, more so than Australians who tend to view welfare, even for those who cannot avoid it, with a level of disdain.

What the great spectator turnout at the Paralympics also shows is that disabled sport now appears, at least in Europe as just as elite and requiring just as much training, skill, ability and overall sporting prowess as the “able bods”.

But far from the lessons we can learn about Europe and how they view disability, we can also look at how they were viewed back here at home in Australia.

That story is almost as positive. As I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games from London consistently brought strong ratings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s digital channel, ABC2, as well as the original channel, ABC1. That means Australians were more than willing to give the Paralympics a go and the relatively consistent ratings throughout proves that people continued to be enthralled by the exploits of our elite athletes.

It shows that, as I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games have the ability to transform how we view disability here in Australia, not just the sporting abilities of those with impairments, but also how disability is looked at within the broader community.

The efforts of our Paralympians must be harnessed by disability advocates in order to continue to foment change in such a neglected sector of the community. It shows that the efforts of supporters of those with a disability may well not be in vain, that there is a positive view of disability that is growing across Australia. That growth may be slow, but it is something that can be pushed along just that little bit faster by displays such as the Paralympics. Stigmas are hard to break, some would say impossible, but you certainly couldn’t say that after the last two weeks.

Australia and the world is learning and learning fast about disability. But that means absolutely nothing if the lessons that have been learnt over the last two weeks are not actually used to further the interests of people with a disability. It would be nice if Australia could aim to be more accepting of disability than the Brits showed. You could call it the ‘Ashes of Acceptance’, since we love beating the Poms so much at contests.

How About We Let the Sport do the Talking?

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are here, they’re finally here. The biggest ever Paralympic Games have returned to land of their spiritual birthplace, England. Over 4000 athletes have converged on the Paralympic Village, ready to compete across 21 sports, some everyday sports and some  adapted especially for athletes with a disability. This Paralympic Games has also seen the most number of tickets sold for the entire event, with 2.4 of 2.5 million tickets snapped up by sports mad people from the United Kingdom and around the world.

The television coverage domestically has also promised to be huge. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the perennial broadcast partner for the Paralympic Games again won the right to broadcast the event from start to finish. The ABC coverage of this year’s Paralympics has been much talked about. With the advent of digital television and the subsequent new channels allowing for greater coverage of this important sporting exhibition, more coverage, much more was promised.

Across two channels, the ABC have begun broadcasting a total of nine and a half hours daily from the Paralympic Games. This is a big shift from years previous when a highlights show and some radio commentary were the stock standard fare and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation should be congratulated for committing to such widespread coverage and the fact that the exposure of the Games is heading in the right direction, up.

Aside from the opening ceremony, which was brilliantly- read minimally narrated and impressively broadcast to the Australian people, the televising of the actual sporting prowess of our Paralympic athletes began right as the competition started.

That broadcast was headed in the studio by Stephanie Brantz, no stranger to sports commentary, as well as being co-hosted by comedian Lawrence Mooney, actor Adam Zwar and Sam Pang. Guests joined the hosts throughout four and a half hours of coverage on the ABC’s digital television channel.

A number of the finest voices of ABC Grandstand and ABC Radio  were stationed at the sporting venues across London, ready to bring the action to a curious Australian audience to a magnitude never seen before in this country.

If there was a failure of the coverage last night, it was that there was too much talk and not enough action. The stars of the Paralympics are supposed to be the athletes who’ve put in massive effort over the years and overcome more adversity than most people will ever encounter.

Instead, for much of the night, we were made familiar with the comedic exploits in particular of Lawrence Mooney and Adam Zwar, but also Sam Pang, who’ve been in the United Kingdom for some time already. The chat was interweaved with numerous introductions to the Australian team and some of its members individually, but that would ideally have taken place while there was little or no sport on, say between 6 and 7pm last night.

Oh and another thing. The only thing “live” about most of the coverage last night and yes the website says it was supposed to be live, is that the commentators were broadcasting live from London. Very little of the sport appeared live amid all the chin-wagging back in the studio. At one point the swimming heats went from one of the later heats in one event, directly to the second heat of presumably the next event. I’m sorry, but to me live coverage means footage of the actual competition is beamed to our televisions instantaneously,  not people sitting around in a studio talking about the sports we want to see as viewers.

As an indication of just how wrong they got it with the coverage last night, Twitter was abuzz with comments lamenting the lack of athletic action being displayed on televisions around Australia. One person even remarked to me that they were so disappointed they felt that switching off after a while was the only answer.

So here’s a radical thought: more sport and less talk. We know the c0-hosts are funny or at least try to be. But they’re not why we as viewers are tuning in. We want to see sporting genius, we want to share the joy of stellar efforts in the pool, on the road, the track and the other arenas. If we wanted a laugh we’d go to their gigs. To steal a line from Elvis and alter it just a bit, a little less conversation, a little more sporting action please.

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