There will be some fanfare around the Paralympic Games’s opening ceremony tonight. The press will then dutifully cover the Games over the next week and a half. We may be introduced to some new sporting heroes and celebrate the victories of well-known faces such as the multiple gold medallists the swimmer Ellie Simmonds and the wheelchair athlete David Wier. But let’s not pretend that the world cares about the Paralympics as it does about the Olympics — you only have to look at the rocky road these Games have travelled in Rio, and the limited public outcry.
The Olympics are billed as the “greatest show on earth”, capturing the world’s attention for two weeks in the heady days of August. By the time the Paralympics come around in September, almost everyone has moved on. Not only are ticket sales typically low (until recently, the only way to describe them for Rio was abysmal), but there is no excitement, no wall-to-wall babbling heads discussing this or that event. Why? Because general attitudes towards disability pervade the Games. How else do you explain the Rio organising committee allegedly spending Paralympic money on the Olympics and facing neither proper sanction nor popular backlash?
Some will say that there is no solution, that the Paralympics will always reflect society’s attitudes to disability and these can’t be made to change overnight. Yet the London Games showed, however briefly, that the Paralympics can make a positive difference. So it’s time for organisers to take the big leap towards real inclusion and real equality. The Paralympics and the Olympics should be run side-by-side.
No one is going to turn off the 200m heats if there’s a Paralympic equivalent in between — and they may find that the British sprinter Jonnie Peacock, who won Paralympic gold in 2012, is just as great to watch as Usain Bolt. Apart from in Rio, there is almost always huge demand for Olympic tickets; holding the Paralympics at the same time would finally see disabled athletes performing in front of full crowds. With a more palpable buzz, who knows how much faster, stronger, better they could be?
Staging the Games concurrently would put the athletes on the same stage. Peacock racing minutes after Bolt does more than any cringe-making advertising campaign to say that they are equal — both talented athletes who happen to compete in different categories. And that matters because, unfortunately, parasport is still the only lens through which many people encounter disability (anecdotal evidence supports this: I am on occasion mistaken for the horsewoman Sophie Christiansen as we are both blonde-haired and have cerebral palsy — never mind that I have never so much as touched a horse). The Games organisers need to recognise the responsibility that comes with this representative role and do the utmost, whatever the financial cost, to help the cause of the world’s disabled people — athletes or not.
The Paralympics embodies a modern day “separate but equal”— more kindly meant than the original version, (the legal doctrine used to justify racial segregation in the US in the late 19th century), but it still fails to live up to the second half of the equation. As long as the Games are separate, they will never be equal.