At a press conference in Rio de Janeiro three weeks ago, the leaders of the United States delegation didn’t even seem to have worked out how to mark the winning of their 1,000th Olympic gold medal of all time. Collecting them was such a breeze that they muttered something about "special plans" being in store and, you imagined, wandered off to make them. The women’s 4x100m medley swimmers did the honours, collecting one of 46 golds secured by a peerless Olympian team which captivated the American nation.
It says everything for the different country that the US Paralympians occupy that at the Games which start on Thursday they may have their work cut out simply beating Ukraine, a nation still in the throes of bitter military conflict. Ukraine finished 30 places behind the US in the Rio Olympics medal table but one place ahead of them at London’s 2012 Paralympics.
The US’s sixth place in London reflected the way Paralympics have often gone for a nation which has only once made it beyond fourth place in the medals table on foreign soil. The poor return is not a coincidence. The fervour felt here in the UK for Paralympic athletes is simply not matched on the other side of the Atlantic.
The flavour of the US media on Wednesday certainly suggested that the Paralympians are not of great interest, despite th supreme quality of their sport. It’s a busy time, coast to coast, with the US Open at Flushing Meadows and the NFL season about to unfold. But the Paralympics did not feature anywhere in the mix of the New York Times, Washington Post, or USA Today digital stories on Wednesday. Even NBC, which has the TV rights, has published minimal preview material this week on its website. Gymnast Simone Biles and that Tonga flagbearer Pita Taufatofua remained NBC’s main Olympic stories on Tuesday, though Tatyana McFadden finally made it on the ‘Olympic’ page on Wednesday.
NBC was criticised for its Paralympic programming at London 2012, principally for not screening live sport and putting the output on its cable sports channel NBCSN. It says it is increasing its output this time, though most of the coverage will be relegated to cable channel again.
One thing that US Paralympian sport seems to lack is a talisman. The story of extraordinary Ukrainian success stems from Valeriy Sushkevych - the founder and president of the Paralympic Committee of Ukraine and two-time disabled swimming champion in the Soviet Union. Under his passionate leadership, as a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Ukraine developed a ground-breaking system of physical education and sport for young people with disabilities.
The US team struggle for funding, too. In part, that is because there is no central government funding, but disability rights advocates also say it reflects the lack of support in the US for those who are disabled. Candace Cable, a 12-time Paralympic medal winner, said this week that the poor US performance “is reflective of the lack of support that disabled people get more generally. It’s always a day too late and dollar too short.” Disabled people tend to be largely absent from TV and cinema screens, not to mention the TV sports channels.
The impact of a well televised Paralympics can be extraordinary, shattering so many preconceptions. Anne Wafula-Strike, who represented Kenya at the 2004 Athens Games, provided a vivid sense of that when we spoke this week. Kenya at the turn of the century was beset by some of the desperate prejudice that the disabled in parts of western Africa still encounter. But when she returned to Kenya after becoming the first wheelchair racer to represent the country, she was mobbed.
“People walked up and touched me, especially the women, because to them it wasn’t real. I had gone and done the thing that ‘only the white person can do',” said Wafula-Strike, who is a supporter and volunteer for Leonard Cheshire Disability and has regularly visited the organisation’s vital school projects in Kenya.
Though the liberation many working class Kenyans felt seeing Wafula-Strike compete was on racial lines, it opened minds to what those with disability can do. “The Paralympics work like that,” she said. “It creates a international platform. When people get to see the games on TV or listening to the BBC World Service maybe in a village in Africa, they feel alive to us and the barriers drop. The whole world is watching and listening.”
Wafula-Strike tells of the disabled child she found living with animals during her efforts to elevate the importance of disability rights in Kenya. Light years away from the west and the United States, of course, but the way moving images of the Paralympics can transform perceptions is relevant to all nations.
Some extremely significant countries at the Games will have no Paralympics broadcast at all. There will be no TV coverage in India, as the Paralympics failed to attract any broadcasters there. This, despite India sending 19 athletes – more than ever before. Pakistan - another country in which attitudes are primitive - has no broadcast either. It is no surprise that the same applies to Ghana, where some of the world’s worst disability discrimination has been witnessed.
In the United States, it is thought that a Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympics – in which Paralympics would have parity with Olympics – could bring the step-change in outlook. In the meantime, American Paralympic athletes hear of London’s plans to stage next summer’s Paralympics world championships before the event for the able-bodied and think that ours is a different world.
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