Why not change the Olympics?

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Marcel Hug of Switzerland during the men’s 800m T54 final during the Tokyo Paralympic Games. PHOTO: CNS/Athit Perawongmetha, Reuters

I have a confession to make. I didn’t watch one second of the Tokyo Olympics, even during lockdown. Apart from watching the big NRL games on TV with the family, I don’t really watch sport at all. It’s not my thing and never has been.

The reports of the Summer Olympics in particular can be found on the front page of daily newspapers and the beginning of nightly television news programs instead of at the back with all the other sports coverage. I don’t think sport is news, but I accept that this is a minority view, with sport increasingly becoming Australia’s national “religion.”

For this reason, I didn’t notice the disparity in the coverage of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games until a couple of friends of mine raised it. The Olympic Games were screened on Channel 7’s main channel, with the Paralympic Games screened on 7Mate and 7Two. Yes, it was still shown but on a less accessible channel, somewhat hidden from the mainstream view.

Art imitating life.

It would be easy to point fingers at Channel 7’s coverage as ableist, but the harsh reality is that a commercial television station makes programming decisions based on what brings in advertising dollars, which is based on what brings in viewers, and it appears that more viewers tune into the horse racing and Better Homes and Gardens.

A more prominent celebration of the Paralympics could demystify disability and go a long way to removing the social stigma that surrounds living with a disability or choosing to raise a child with one.

In other words, it reflects a culture that is not only less interested in the achievements of the disabled, but also less interested in demanding that they receive mainstream attention. This is surprising, given that our culture is otherwise obsessed with identity politics and insists that there be diversity quotas in almost every other program (the Wiggles with a non-binary police officer, anyone?)

But instead of playing my favourite sport and beating up the culture on this one, I’d like us to imagine for just a moment the difference a change in how the Paralympics are treated might make.

A more prominent celebration of the Paralympics could demystify disability and go a long way to removing the social stigma that surrounds living with a disability or choosing to raise a child with one. I remember hearing a doctor say that the reason most women choose to abort a baby with Down Syndrome is because they can’t imagine what life would be like for them or the child.

I imagine this is true for many other conditions with which a child is diagnosed in utero. What if – instead of fearing the worst for their child – expectant parents might imagine them claiming gold for Australia in the Paralympics? What if – instead of imagining the worst for themselves after a horrific accident or troubling diagnosis – a person instinctively turns their mind to their favourite Paralympian with the same condition and is given some peace?

This type of change could begin with something as small as a change to television scheduling, like what has been done in the US. This year, NBC screened 1200 hours of Paralympic Games coverage, up from just 70 hours screened in 2016. It was across a range of the NBC platforms, but was hailed by disability advocates as a gamechanger for the normalisation of disability in society.

Sport good for souls says Pope

Another example of how the Paralympics can be used to normalise disability in a small way is the Woolworths Aussie Heroes collector card set, with Olympians and Paralympians featured in the same album, side by side. Another great initiative came with the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing that the financial reward provided by the Australian Government to medallists would be an equal amount for our Olympians and Paralympians alike; sending a message that Australia is equally proud of both.

Or we could shoot for the stars, and change the program of the Olympics themselves. There are already men’s events and women’s events in the Summer Olympics. What if, instead of the Paralympics being a separate ‘games’ altogether, the Summer Olympics ran the men’s, women’s and disabled events concurrently.

Perhaps I am reflecting my confessed sporting ignorance here, but humour me on this one.

It may not be possible in all sports, as I expect some sports will require the arenas to be modified to accommodate Paralympic events, but some could surely be run at the same time, with the entire games extended until all events are finished and the medals won in each contributing to the overall tally and winner of the games? Gold is gold, after all.

I don’t know, but it’s nice to dream. And that’s what the Olympics are all about, right?

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