Did you know that out of the 2800 journalists that NBC sent to cover the Olympic Games, only 25 remained in Rio to cover the Paralympics?
That’s right, only 25! Team USA finished in 4th place behind China, Great Britain and the Ukraine. My dear France finished in 12th place! Congrats to the Ukraine, but my big question here is: Why did France and America do so well at the Olympics and so poorly at the Paralympics? This article is meant to open your minds to the potential origin of why those countries might have a divided focus on the athletes.
Think of it this way. When I meet a child, I quickly learn if he is a Knicks fan or, god forbid, a Nets fan. I’m quick to ask if he loves Michael Phelps and to hear his thoughts on soccer in America. But if I were to talk to a disabled child for the first time, I doubt that I would ask him: “So tell me, what is your favorite sport?” I would be afraid of bringing up a sore topic, a frustration, and I’m sure that most of you feel the same way.” Why are we programmed this way? I’d like to draw a quick comparison.
At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, no women competed. Not a single one. De Coubertin felt their inclusion would be, “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect”. In 1928, women competed in track and field events for the first time; however, so many collapsed at the end of the 800-meter race that the event was banned until 1960. Skip ahead to current day — In Rio 2016, 44% of medals were be awarded in women’s events, the highest ever. In 1984, the figure was only just over 25%. That’s some major progress in a relatively short amount of time.
Finally, not so long ago, we as a society thought that women shouldn’t run marathons. This demanding physical challenge was deemed, “dangerous for their reproductive system”. Now I have seen pregnant women lacing up their sneakers for the race! Maybe not entirely recommended, but look at that progress! How did we get there? It was a complex movement, but I believe there were three important factors: 1) The action of a few charismatic leaders such as Kathrine Switzer 2) The implementation of public policies like Title IX, and 3) The slow evolution of our mentalities as society.
What did Kathrine Switzer do exactly? In 1967, she faked her way into the Boston marathon. Women were not allowed to race, but she registered under the gender-neutral “K. V. Switzer”, then was issued a number through an “oversight” in the entry screening process, and was treated as an interloper when the error was discovered. That bold step of creating the change she wanted to see is a solid lesson across any gender or race. Good news, that change worked. Today, women represent close to 50% of marathon finishers around the world. How did that continue to trickle down throughout society? In 1972, Title IX required schools to offer girls and boys the same athletic opportunities, and that resulted in a huge uptick in female participation in school sports. That was only 5 years after Kathrine’s courageous undertaking.
Where am I going with this? What women did decades ago must be replicated by athletes with disabilities today. Think about that. The Paralympic games shouldn’t be an inspirational story, it should be just another competition. The expression “disabled athlete” shouldn’t sound like an oxymoron. It should be the norm.
This begins with each of us. It begins with everyone that reads this article. I believe that if we want the Paralympic games to be even more compelling… if we truly want to help people with disabilities… we have to stop being afraid of asking disable children if they like sports! We have to change our programming to the point where we start asking them if they want to be an Olympian when they grow up. They are the next generation of champions, and that thought should be planted within them as a child.
Can I ask for your help with making this change?