06 September 2012
Perceptions about disability sport are bound to change in the wake of the Paralympics of 2012, and I say this with confidence because I’ve already observed how my own ideas about it have been transformed. It happened almost imperceptibly, but it definitely happened! One moment I was watching the Paralympics with an awareness that this was different to the Olympic Games, and the next minute (after having jumped to my feet and started roaring) my only experience was that this was a sporting competition and that I wanted my guy to win. Breakthrough! In the final analysis, in the heat of the moment, the Paralympics is a competition, just like any other.
If this sounds deliberately disingenuous, it really isn’t, because this breakthrough represented a real change in perception that was startling to me in retrospect, even though it was purely instinctive and natural. It certainly made me think about the mental barriers that we almost unconsciously erect around things and how they inevitably colour the way we behave.
The press seems to have undergone this metamorphosis too, putting emphasis on the winning of medals and GB’s standing in the tables rather then the more – shall we say - ‘emotional’ side of the Paralympics: the triumph over adversity aspect. The subtext is “we were all reluctant to let the Olympics go; thank heaven for the Paralympics, it’s just as good”. Different people; same competition essentially.
With these and similar ideas in mind, some people are now calling for the Olympic & Paralympic Games to be amalgamated, so that able and non-able bodied athletes can compete together – not against each other, but with the two sets of events taking place within the same time frame, in one big Games, which would embrace every different type of human form and endeavour.
Would the logistics be impossible to cope with? A few problems spring to mind: the Olympic venues had to be changed in some respects to adjust to the physical requirements of the Paralympians; the latter also required a more flexible timetable (for similar reasons). But are these insuperable issues? The positive side of the equation? The chance of real integration between these elite athletes, and a learning experience for all concerned.
Lots of Library colleagues have been sampling the Paralympic events, and have come back with similar ideas. Why separate it out? The volunteers are just as welcoming; the venues just as exciting; the sporting events ditto. Pictures also continue to flood in, revealing spectators' continuing sense of wonder. here are a couple:
31 August 2012
Simone Bacchini writes:
If you’re expecting a balanced, unbiased article on the Paralympic spectacle I’m afraid you will be disappointed. To my surprise, the level of excitement I’ve been experiencing has been rather startling. Partly, it may be due to a semi-conscious desire not to let go of the party atmosphere, the general sense of excitement that took hold of Great Britain, and especially London, during the Olympics. I may be generalising, but I think the Games made us fell good about ourselves and – like all good parties – they gave us a break, albeit a temporary one, from the daily worries of our challenging times. But like all parties, the Olympics too ended. Except that they didn’t, really; the Paralympics got it started again.
Undoubtedly, for the host city and the host country, both the Olympics and the Paralympics have a special value. They are occasions to showcase the Nation; to project a preferred image, both to outsiders and, crucially, to itself. In the case of the Paralympics, an extra layer of meaning is added and it has to do with the way we – as a society – view disability. Of course one can’t be naïve; a few days of highly visible elite sportsmanship will not translate instantly into the removal of all barriers, some of them physical, some cultural and psychological, that still affect the live of disabled people. For every Oscar Pistorious (isn’t he great?), there are probably hundreds of people who find it difficult to go the office because of architectural barriers and transport systems that are not fit for purpose. According to data published in the Office for National Statistics Labour Force Survey (http://tiny.cc/7oiwjw), in 2009 there were 1.3million disabled people available for work in the UK. Of those, only half were in employment, compared with 80 per cent of non disabled people. There are certainly complex reasons behind this but certainly part of the problem has to do with perceptions of disability, which in turn has to do with still insufficient visibility of disability itself and of people with disabilities. And this is where the Paralympics and the attention given to them can and does help.
The first International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed, held in Rome from 18th to 25th September 1960 received little attention. I wasn’t able to find a single article in The Times for the period concerned (but I’m still searching!). During the Games the largest Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, only published three articles on the event which, after all, was being held in the Country’s Capital. According to The Times (31/08/2012), 20 years ago the Barcelona Paralympics had only one British TV programme devoted to them. It is therefore impressive that this time Channel 4 was willing to pay £9million to outbid the BBC for the rights to broadcast the Paralympics, promising around 500 hours of coverage over the 11 days of the event. So far the bet appears to have paid off. The viewing figures are stunning: peak viewing of 11.2 million and an average of 7.6 million viewers for the stunning opening ceremony. And let’s not forget the 2.4 million tickets sold. In contrast, according to The Times, NBC - the US broadcasters – will only show its viewers a 90-minute programme with highlights on September 16. This in spite of the fact that the US has 340 athletes in the Games, and the UD disabled population is estimated at around 38 million. In other countries, the situation is likely to be worse. Clearly, there’s still work to be done.
But does this all matter? And don’t paralympians want our attention to be focused on their sporting performances, rather than on whichever disability they may happen to have? Are we – the able-bodied viewing public – patronising when we watch the Paralympics with added interest and Paralympians’ performances with added admiration? I may be wrong on this, but I don’t think we are. In my view, paralympians – just like any disable person – are who they are not in spite of their disabilities but because of them. Impairments are facts of life; just like skin colour and sexual orientation: they just exist. The Paralympics, among other things, can help society become more aware and accepting of this fact. In addition, they are fun to watch and an opportunity to be excited by the athletes’ physical prowess and sheer determination. On top of this, they can help change attitudes. So in this case – but alas not in the Paralympics or the Olympics – everyone’s a winner!
26 April 2010
I'm writing on the day after the London Marathon and thinking about the great ethos of endurance running where amateurs are allowed to race with elites. Being a slow but steady runner myself I've always been interested in the experiences of grass roots athletes: people who would describe themselves as ‘ordinary’ but who have started from a very low base line and gone on to attempt marathons, ultra marathons and similar sporting feats. Quite a few of these are eager to spread the word by publishing their experiences, and their accounts tell us a great deal about how sport can contribute to a positive sense of self, and give meaning to sometimes damaged lives. The way people write about these things: the words they use, the tone they adopt is full of significance too.
Owing to the fact that they aren’t standard sports biographies, some of these books have a tendency to slip under the radar of libraries, so I’m making it my mission to keep an eye on them and ensure that the British Library acquires them - either through legal deposit or purchase. Quite a few are produced in the U.S, where publishers like Breakaway Books give this sort of author a voice. Some are privately published though, and even harder to get hold of or even to find out about. The standard at the Olympic Games is far removed from the sporting world of the leisure athlete, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t have effects on such people or the wider population of the UK. With the focus on sport and sports facilities we will hopefully see a much wider take-up of physical recreation, inspired by what people see on the screen in 2012 - and hopefully more people will be writing about their experiences.
Sporting biography isn’t restricted to print media, of course, as the internet has provided a platform for people to recount their experiences in lots of different ways like on video via Youtube, or on blogs and message boards. Naturally this poses a problem for libraries because of the issues involved in archiving these types of resource, and we’re only just beginning to grapple with the enormity of capturing what’s out there. Archiving websites is one way of doing it, and the BL is in the forefront of these efforts; it also, through its oral history activities, is playing a part in getting people’s experiences recorded and 'The oral history of British athletics' is a collection in our Sound Archive which represents one of those initiatives. Now that digital technology is available to everyone, everyone’s experiences are theoretically recordable – so Andy Warhol’s famous dictum has every chance of coming true!
Social Science blog recent posts
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- Historic Heston at the British Library
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- Watching the Paralympics