Opinion: Upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics highlights need for change
The Olympics are a big deal. The Paralympics are not yet treated as an equal. A new generation of para-athletes is working for change. The media and public needs to join in too.
The “para” in Paralympics stands for “parallel” meaning the Paralympic Games are side-by-side to the Olympics. However, equality may be on the rise but far from comparable.
U.S. Paralympics was not founded until 2001 so there isn’t a ton of history on the subject. As of the 2020 Tokyo Games there were approximately 11,500 Olympians. The 2020 Paralympians overall set the record for the most athletes at 4,403 to compete at the Games. The numbers may be so much smaller than Olympians, but it shouldn’t demean the athlete any less.
Paralympians have had to deal with many inequalities when looking at the value comparison from an Olympian.
In 2019, the United States changed their name from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to represent both athletic teams.
“Before this [change] we just kind of had to fall in line,” said Matt Scott, a U.S. Paralympic men’s national wheelchair basketball player.
Paralympians put in the same amount of training, time, and effort as Olympic athletes but still receive less monetary compensation. Countries like Australia and Canada do not hand out cash prizes to the gold medalists of the Paralympians, but give close to about $15,000 to the Olympic gold medalists.
“At the time you are just happy that you are able to get on the medal stand and represent your country but all in all you’re still fighting for that equality and legitimacy of your sport,” said Scott.
Each countries’ committee puts less money into their Paralympians compared to their Olympians because of the variation of athletes competing.
The money needs to be put in the right place and given back to the athletes. This can open up doors to international incentives rather than each committee paying their athletes.
“You should be able to stand up on a podium with a big check. Every able-bodied competition gets to do that and that plays a big part towards equality,” said U.S. Paralympic snowboarder Keith Gabel.
When looking at this disparity the USOPC saw it looked bad. The committee now awards the same amount for Paralympic and Olympic top medalists.
“It didn’t fit the amount of training and effort we put into this so they made it equal and I am happy that they made that decision,” said wheelchair basketball player Scott.
The Paralympic Games start two weeks after the Olympic Games, at the same sites.
People question why the games don’t just happen together, but it is not initially what Paralympians want when it comes to creating equality. In a sense of drawing recognition to all of the events individually.
“It would overshine the Paralympics. I love the two week layover. All of the signage gets changed. It brings attention to the importance of both competitions and value to seeing these on the same playing field,” said former U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skier Sandra Dukat.
The Games are both equally important when bringing talent to the competition, although they each do it in a unique way to continue as separate events.
“I don’t even think we want it to happen at the same time we want to be treated with the same respect,” Scott said. This sport just needs to be given more opportunities in hindsight of exposure and recognition.
The two week layover period between the Games gives the host committee enough time to make accessibility accommodations.
Social media has become a huge traffic on how athletes obtain their sponsors.
When comparing a top Olympian that might have a bigger following than a Paralympian, they could be offered the same sponsor but not the same deal. For instance, a Paralympian could get just the product with no monetary compensation because the audience reach isn’t enough in the sense it can devalue the athlete.
As the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) gains more traffic, sponsors need to be careful that the incline continues.
Although they have come really far, according to the former skier Dukat, the momentum has only continued to grow over the last two decades. So many of the national athletes are getting huge sponsors like Toyota, Coca-Cola, Samsung, and Visa.
“You’re starting to see the value of a Paralympian rise a bit,” said the three-time medalist Scott (2 golds, 1 bronze).
Toyota took a huge leap this year with their Super Bowl commercial featuring U.S. Paralympic Swimmer Jessica Long and her life journey in and out the pool.
Long has won many medals in her five Paralympic appearances, including 16 gold, 8 silver, and 5 bronze. Born in Russia, Long was put up for adoption and was able to find a new home in America just months before having both of her legs amputated. Her loving parents stuck by her side when she first hopped into the pool and now bringing home medals.
This inspirational story moved many people across the world as it continues to play today.
“I do feel that the general public can relate to someone who has had their life flipped upside down. I am not sure why it has taken so long for people to realize this,” said silver and bronze medalist Gabel.
The exposure in the media isn’t on the scale that it needs to be. There are thousands of hours that are designated for Olympic content from many channels. For the first time NBC covered the Paralympics for 1,200 hours at the 2020 Tokyo Games. The Olympics are more than just televised but written about on the Internet and also posted on social media.
Despite the increase of positive realms of sponsoring a Paralympian the media stereotypes linger. Paralympic achievements are rationalized when comparing Olympians competing in the same events with the same outcome other than honoring their talent. These athletes are competing in major events with an obstacle.
The media is portraying the wrong vision of athletes. Showing what the stereotypical athlete “should look like” at the Games and not how talented they can be. The diversity of athletes continues to flourish and raise awareness so that all athletes can be recognized to the level they have trained to be.
Paralympic athletes are honored to showcase the thing they love with the world while being the best at it.
“Being questioned and challenged from day one as a person with a disability when I am on that playing stage whether it is on the slopes, in the pool, or on the court people get to see a difference side of disability and start challenging perception of what a disability really is and maybe shed some light on some misconceptions that have been attached to our community,” said three-time bronze medalist Dukat.