Can you believe that it’s already been three weeks since the Olympics ended? That we have to wait two more years before the next one, and four before the next one of the summer variety? For those of us who have grown up loving to cheer for and invest our emotions into our country’s finest athletic representatives, the wait time feels more like a family member going away on an extended business trip rather than just an absence of prime-time NBC sports programming, and I’m sure many fans have pondered if there is any way to milk more out of the Olympic experience than the two weeks we are given. As it happens, there is a built-in drug for Olympics junkies tacked onto the end of every games. I speak, of course, of the Paralympic Games.
Most who follow the sports world even passively have at least a fleeting idea of what the Paralympic Games are (in case you are not one of those fans, they are an international competition designed to mimic the Olympics, only for those who are affected by physical disabilities that would otherwise prevent them from competing in their sports at the highest level). The Paralympics are typically organized in the weeks directly following the conclusion of the Olympics, basing itself in the same host city and making use of much of the same infrastructure. The 2016 games have just recently come to a close, having run from September 7-18. Every two years, fans have the opportunity to stay for two more weeks and witness even more inspirational stories and remarkable feats of athletic achievement, and yet most pay the games no mind. You can count me as one of them; despite considering myself a huge sports junkie and Olympics fan, I have never watched a Paralympics event.
One might wonder how such a seeming lack of collective interest could possibly result in a sustainable business model, and this question reached a head in August when the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, responsible for planning both the Olympics and Paralympics, announced that it had run out of funding for the latter due to tepid sponsorship interest and slow ticket sales. A social media campaign launched in Brazil in support of the games eventually boosted tickets sold up to 1.9 million, making them the second largest in history and allowing for the continuation of the events, which some had feared would have to be canceled following the exhausting of the planning committee’s initial budget. Still, there is something that feels fundamentally unfair about such a prestigious international competition as this facing the threat of being canceled due to a financial concern. In terms of compensation and money poured into training and development, there is a lot more than just “feeling” unfair, there is actually a huge economic disparity: just 17% of the United States Olympic Committee’s four year expense budget of approximately $800 million went to development and support for the Paralympics.
This kind of preferential treatment towards those athletes that society calls “normal,” those without disabilities, does not sit well with me, as it runs counter to the lessons of inclusiveness that I have been taught at home and in school my entire life. Unfortunately, the bottom line is that the USOC seeks some kind of return on investment from its contributions to national athletes and that which is offered by Paralympians is simply not as high as their Olympian counterparts. Names of some of the greatest Olympians in history are among the most recognizable in all of sports: Michael Phelps, Jesse Owens, Jim Thorpe, Usain Bolt. Phelps and Bolt are true global celebrities, brand names who draw huge TV ratings and sell millions of dollars of merchandise for their sponsors. Now stop me if you have ever heard the name Trischa Zorn. No? Well she just happens to be the most decorated Paralympian ever, a blind swimmer whose 24 year career resulted in an incredible 55 medals, nearly double Phelps’ record Olympic count. By rights Zorn should have been as big a celebrity as any yet swam out her career in almost total anonymity. Some might say that it is the media’s fault for offering so much less coverage of the Paralympics and hindering its athletes chances at stardom, but the reason companies don’t market the Paralympics is because they don’t sell. The minute NBC believed it would be worth its time to throw wheelchair basketball on the prime-time roster, it would be up there.
Is this cruel of us to so easily dismiss this entire subset of disabled athletes, to hold them in lesser regard by default? For my own moral integrity and that of the country, I really hope that this is not the case. Instead of being based on bigotry, I think this sort of preferential treatment is just the result of we as humans always wanting to witness the very best of something, whatever is the most impressive display. Nobody could ever deny the hard work, natural talent, and athletic achievement of Paralympians and there is certainly an added element of inspiration in their stories, having overcome physical challenges that most of us could only dream of. Still, no group will ever have a monopoly on that pathos, since inspirational narratives based on background, upbringing, and personal struggle are fed to the public for a dime a dozen in the sports world. Meanwhile, competitors in the Olympics have one distinct advantage over their Paralympics counterparts: the things they are able to do have an objectively more spectacular potential (purely in terms of athleticism). No Paralympic swimmer or sprinter could ever hope to best Phelps or Bolt and so we gravitate towards those people that we recognize as truly the best, without caveats. This same phenomenon explains why men’s sports are so much more popular than women’s at the professional level, both in the United States and around the world. For example, as terrific as Maya Bird and Elena Delle Donne are at basketball relative to their peers, throw them on the court next to LeBron James and Kevin Durant and it wouldn’t be a competition. Ultimately, most people want to witness that highest level of talent at work and thus men’s league remain on the whole far more popular and profitable than women’s.
So if you want to improve equity for Paralympics and get them the recognition that they would receive in a perfect world, I guess your best option is to…change human nature? That’s a bleak and functionally impossible goal, one which you’re not going to get far trying to achieve, but I’m not sure what other realistic options exist out there. If you want the Paralympics to get greater exposure, then you either need to make their broadcasting mandatory (a huge overstepping of the free market which I’m sure most Americans wouldn’t appreciate) or fundamentally change people’s demand for the event, which isn’t going to happen until you can start dictating what people like to watch in their athletic competitions. For the individual looking to support them, the games are out there to consume, but I find it unlikely that they will ever achieve a mainstream status comparable to that of the Olympics. And in the end maybe that’s not such a bad thing, just the inevitable result of our collective tastes and preferences. Nobody feels bad about the fact that our Olympic handball team is lesser known than our basketball team because we all understand on a certain level that perfect egalitarianism is impossible in reality, and the same is true of our Paralympians. As long as you respect them and what they do, it’s of no use bemoaning their cultural relevance or lack thereof.