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Sunday, 18 September 2016

Should the Paralympics & Olympics merge?

It's the last day of the Rio 2016 Paralympics and what a ride it has been. I'd been anticipating them even more than the Olympics and I was not disappointed. Something that always coincides with the Paralympics is the age old debate, should the Paralympics and Olympics be merged? It has been a topic even more prevalent this year after it came to light that apparently there had been budget cuts to the Paralympics after money was spent to fix issues that occurred during the Olympics. As such they had to scale back some of the venues and media and it was touch a go for a while whether all the athletes - mostly those from poorer countries - would be able to make it as their travel grants were late being paid.

When it comes to the great merger question, more often than not it seems like a no brainer to most people and - more so this year than ever - there would a resounding 'yes!' My own opinion is more on the unpopular side of things, a strong no. At least right now. I had a few debates about this issue recently and I felt I would touch upon some of the arguments I see most often and give my reasoning for being against the merger at this time.

First I will talk about perhaps the most self-serving of my reasons; I find it hard enough to catch all the sport I want, even with the Paralympics and Olympics being separate. While the games are on, it's a difficult task trying to catch everything or even trying to make the time to watch everything. Ultimately you have to pick, choose and prioritise. This year I prioritised swimming, track cycling and diving (which was only present in the Olympics). Even then I had to make sacrifices as they ran at the same time or too late into the night. Darn time differences! By the end of the Olympics I'm ready for a sport break and feel refreshed and ready for more when the Paralympics start.

That leads me on to the logistics of combining the two. The reality is if we combine the games we are going to get a watered down version of both. And realistically we would see the Paralympics being swallowed by the Olympics and taking the brunt of the sacrifices having to be made as it has so many classifications etc. We already see less popular sports getting less media attention and no air time. Combining the two would only push these sports further down the totem pole. Some may risk being cut from the programme completely. Realistically, without big sacrifices being made, very few cities - if any - could accommodate all at once the number of people that would be involved. Ultimately, both the Paralympics and Olympics would suffer if they were merged and I'm not confident that it wouldn't be the Paralympics coming off worse.

For me personally, the amount of sacrifices that would have to be made aren't worth it.  However, for some they are and there's a number of arguments I've seen as to why. Some worry about the message that having separate games for disabled people and abled people sends out. That this segregation only perpetuates a divide and as such that disabled people and para sport could never be seen as equal until they are combined. They also believe the different classifications are an obstacle in the road to a transparent and a disability blind society, and more than that undermine what competitive sport of this level is supposed to be. If we want an equal society in which people 'don't see' disability then we must allow abled athletes and disabled athletes compete with each other in the 'real Olympics'. That's not to say that adaptive sport wouldn't be introduced to the Olympics but the likes of the classifications we see within swimming and such would be done away with. Classifications where the disability doesn't seemingly interact with the sport (not my words because as merely a spectator I can't say how much a disability interacts with a sport) would be done away with. We'd say goodbye to some of our Paralympic favourites because by abled standards or in a disability blind society, those athletes 'just aren't good enough' to compete with 'actual Olympic champions'.

And that's where my issue comes in. These arguments are all centred around abled society and abled standards. As disabled people we constantly have to worry about the message we're sending to ignorant abled people. As disabled people we constantly have to be measured by abled standards. Something I've heard a lot is the idea that abled society at large view the Paralympics as a 'freak show' and the only way to combat this is to merge it with the Olympics. Basically, the only way to make ignorant abled people see us as equal and relatable is by pandering to them at every turn. If they don't see us with their apparent equals they won't see us as their equals. To me it's a highly simplistic view and perhaps naive but it's what some believe.

That isn't my activism. If you listen to a lot of the narrative surrounding the Paralympics and particularly around whether the two should be merged, a lot of it is from the idea that the Paralympics are lesser because they're separate. Language like 'real Olympics' or 'real Olympic champions' underline this.  Again, this comes from the idea that we can only be equal to abled people when we're pit directly against them. I want to challenge that idea. In sport and in life, I don't want a disability blind society because there is a certain amount of erasure that goes along with that and progress isn't a one way street. I don't see a time when I won't identify myself as a disabled person because there's a history there and we need to remember where we've come from or else risk going back. But I digress, I want a society in which we see our differences - in all respects - and those differences can be accommodated but don't equate to better or worse. I want a society where disabled people can come together on the world stage and it won't be seen as lesser or a side show because it's something by disabled people, for disabled people. Which I believe the Paralympics should be and something we should be striving for. Sport and competitive sport is a made up concept and as such it can develop and evolve. We can determine how we implement it and if that's by having classifications then so be it. Marginalised groups should be able to control their narrative and we shouldn't have to always determine what we do based on how ignorant people will perceive it. We should be pushing back against ableism and ignorance not bending to it. Abled society aren't the be all and end all. Sometimes it's okay to have something that's just for us. We should be allowed our own spaces.

The reality is combining the Olympics and Paralympics will not act as a quick fix to an ableist society. In my opinion - right now at least - there is a lot more to be lost than gained if they merge. The games are only once every four years - two if you include the Winter games - and there's so many other ways that we can work towards combating ableism that won't act as a risk to disability sport. Something that is incredibly under funded as it is. It's debatable whether or not combining the games would help in that regard, I guess.

That's not to say there isn't an abundance of things wrong with the Paralympics and I have many criticisms. I mean you just have to look at how inspiration focused the whole thing has been despite disabled people fighting against that for how many years now? Or the eligibility issues faced by people with certain disabilities. I wish those issues got more coverage than the great merge debate.


  1. This is very interesting!! I think as far as when it was created and the times, where people were literally just discovering majority of the disabilities allowed at the games, it was fine that it was separate.

    Now as I watched both the Olympics and Paralympics I was starting to think they were should be merged together! Mostly because of the crowds. The Olympics have bigger crowds and sometimes better coverage of the actual games, than the Paralympics. The Olympics has 14 selected channels that covered the 2 weeks it was on, but once the Paralympics started it was brought down to just one. How the hell is that possible or fair to these athletes that have been working just as hard or maybe even harder than say Michael Phelps?

    You got yourself a very thought-provoking post here my lady!

  2. Thank you for writing this post Sara, this was really interesting to read and you brought up some points I hadn't considered, such as the funding and the prioritisation, as well as the loss of some of our favourites depending upon their abilities when matched against abled athletes and it made me think. A big part of me wants to see them combined mainly for the big reason you mentioned, which is having everyone together, as opposed to singling them out and separating people based upon their disabilities from abled people, but when you talked about the other complexities around that, as well as ableism and the Olympics, I could definitely see where you were coming from. Like you, I'd like to see more coverage on some of the other issues surrounding this, as you mentioned above, especially with this year's funding issue so I'm glad to see you discussing it, and thank you for getting me to think a bit this evening as well! - Tasha


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