Grit and glory don’t guarantee an audience — at least not an American one.
The Paralympics, which begin this week in South Korea, make for the world’s third-largest sporting event, just after the Olympics and the World Cup. And the elite gathering of athletes with disabilities has enjoyed surging support across much of the planet.
The London games of 2012 drew more than 2.7 million spectators and closed with rollicking performances from Rihanna, Coldplay, and Jay-Z at a packed, 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium. Hundreds of journalists from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan flocked to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where they watched visually impaired Algerian runner Abdellatif Baka win 1,500-meter gold in faster time than the Olympic champion a month before. And broadcasters all over the globe will deliver exhaustive coverage of the PyeongChang edition over the next couple of weeks.
But if the recent past is any guide, the games won’t make much of an impression in the United States.
America may muster more enthusiasm than it has in the past; NBC is nearly doubling its coverage from the last winter Paralympics. But most of that coverage will appear on secondary stations like NBC Sports Network and the Olympic Channel, and ratings are expected to be low. There will be no deluge of t-shirt sales. No rash of magazine covers. No major burst of social media activity.
Our collective indifference is hard to figure. Americans love spectacle as much as anyone. And the United States has long been a leader on disability rights; indeed, when it comes to legal protections, the country is several steps ahead of many of the nations that have embraced the Paralympics.
Yet legal and cultural norms do not move in perfect synch. The far-reaching Americans with Disabilities Act, which required curb cuts on street corners and reasonable accommodations for employees, grew out of a long civil-rights tradition. But greater protection for people with disabilities doesn’t lead inexorably to higher viewership for athletes with disabilities.
That disconnect, sports historians and academics who study disability say, goes to something deeper — the fixations at the core of American culture. More so than in Europe or Japan, the media landscape in the United States reflects an obsession with youth, sex, and money — or, rather, a certain brand of unblemished youth, a certain kind of stylized sex, and a certain type of unabashed capitalism. And the Paralympics just don’t fit the formula. They cannot be easily be turned into the sexy, profitable entertainment at the center of American life.
It’s a cold calculation. We’re just so inured to it, we hardly notice.
The Paralympics offer a rare opportunity to pay attention — to understand why an event that stirs something powerful in other parts of the world has such a modest effect here.
The games also offer a chance to imagine a different future: One where an event like the Paralympics registers not just in the typical American way — with those t-shirt sales, and magazine covers, and social media memes — but in a deeper appreciation of the human body in all its varieties.
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THE STORY OF the Paralympics begins in the early 20th century with a young man named Ludwig Guttmann.
Interested in medicine, he volunteered to be an orderly at the Accident Hospital for Coal miners in his native Germany, and was stunned by the case of a paralyzed miner who was wrapped in plaster and separated from the other patients — developing a urinary tract infection and sepsis, and dying within five weeks.
“Although I saw many more victims suffering the same fate,” Guttmann would later say, “it was the picture of that young man which remained indelibly fixed in my memory.”
Guttmann was Jewish, and in 1939 he fled Nazi Germany for England. By then, he was a renowned neurologist, and British authorities asked him to start a spinal injuries center for soldiers wounded in the war. He agreed, but on one condition: that he be allowed to pursue his own theories for treating paraplegics.
The doctor, working out of Stoke Mandeville Hospital just outside London, was convinced that sports could play an important role in the physical and psychological rehabilitation of disabled people. And on July 28, 1948, he launched what were then called the Stoke Mandeville Games, with 14 men and two women participating in a single sport: archery.
That first edition of what would later become the Paralympics coincided with the start of the London Summer Olympics, just 28 miles away as the crow flies. But in the decades that followed, the two events often took place in different cities, sometimes on different continents — and the event for disabled athletes, separated from its higher-profile cousin, remained relatively obscure.
That began to change in 1988, when the Olympics and Paralympics came together in Seoul, South Korea and built a more lasting partnership — allowing the Paralympics to grow not just as athletic competition, but as social phenomenon.
“Each one has within us the spark of fire, a creative touch,” said Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist, speaking to a rapt crowd at the opening ceremony for the 1992 Barcelona games.
Over the years, the athletes would put on some transcendent performances, too. Sprinter Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, captured the world’s attention with his Paralympic victories and crossover participation in the 2012 Olympics, before a stunning murder conviction took him off the global stage. And two years ago in Rio, American sprinter David Brown, who is blind, broke the 11-second barrier in the 100-meter dash.
Ian Brittain, a research fellow at Coventry University in England who studies the Paralympics, says it’s important not to overplay the impact of these iconic moments. The games, he thinks, have not yet fulfilled their mission of transforming public attitudes toward disabled people.
But they are providing a singular opportunity to build the case. “There is nothing” like the Paralympics, Brittain says, calling them “absolutely critical . . . as a platform around which to debate the wider issues of disability, equality, inclusion.”
It’s that platform, along with the pure thrill of the games, that the United States is losing out on, Brittain says — a singular chance to reflect on the lives of the 57 million Americans and billion-plus people worldwide who have disabilities.
And observers say our failure to latch onto the Paralympics has a lot to do with the power of our private sector relative to our public sector.
In countries where the government is more heavily involved in sports, officials have demanded access for disabled athletes. And it’s a global network of publicly owned, or publicly supported, broadcasters — like the BBC, and later, Channel 4 in the UK, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in Norway, and the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, known as NHK, in Japan — that have popularized the Paralympics themselves. When Paralympians are on television, they have a chance to win more fans.
In the United States, it’s commercial broadcasters who dominate. And the problem, says David Clay Large, an Olympic historian, is that Paralympic competition “can’t be monetized” in the way that other sports are. “What sponsors want is beauty, and bodily perfection, and even sex appeal,” he says. “They want to see the very top competitors going at each other tooth and nail, because that’s what stirs up the nationalistic passions.”
America’s lack of interest has long been a source of frustration for supporters of the games. Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee, lashed out at NBC during the 2012 games for its scant coverage — 5½ hours compared with more than 150 hours on Channel 4 in the UK. “Some people think that North America always lead[s] on everything, and on this they don’t,” he snapped. “It’s about time they caught up.”
Still, the behavior of broadcasters, sponsors, and other profit-seekers is not the only factor keeping American viewers away. Something else is at work.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a professor of English and bioethics at Emory University who specializes in disability studies, points to a deep discomfort with the figure at the center of the games: the disabled body, with its missing limbs or unseeing eyes.
That discomfort isn’t unique to our culture, of course. But Garland-Thomson says it’s exacerbated by an American “fastidiousness” about the body. “We’re a bit prudish about nakedness,” she says, “about bodily functions.”
The United States may be awash in sexy Calvin Klein ads, but we’re uncomfortable with breast-feeding in the park and sagging bodies in the sauna. We’re uncomfortable with what Garland-Thomson calls “the reality of embodiment” or, more grandly, “the truth of the flesh.”
“And of course, disability calls attention to all that,” she says.
It’s no coincidence, she says, that the Paralympics are more popular in cultures that take a more naturalistic view of the body.
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YOU DON’T HAVE to be an exhibitionist, though, to appreciate the games.
Japan is at least as modest as the United States — in many ways, far more. And it’s got plenty of anxiety about disability, even if the country’s exceedingly polite culture does its best to conceal it.
But when I recently traveled to Tokyo to observe preparations for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, I was struck by the keen attention to the Paralympics. Billboards and subway station advertisements gave them equal billing with the Olympics, and school children voted on mascots for both competitions.
When I met with Yuriko Koike, the governor of Tokyo, she wore a pin with raised Olympic and Paralympic logos on the lapel of her suit jacket — a tactile design aimed at blind people. “In terms of preparation,” she told me through an interpreter, “I’m focusing more on the Paralympic Games.”
If the focus on the Paralympics is about an abiding concern for those born with disabilities, it also underscores a deep concern for the elderly that’s missing from America’s youth-obsessed culture. Intergenerational living is far more common in Japan than it is in the United States. And every September, the country celebrates national Respect for the Aged Day.
The country also faces a stark demographic reality. Extended life spans and declining birth rates mean Japan is rapidly graying. One key challenge is how to accommodate the disabilities of an aging population.
Nearly everyone I interviewed on my trip to Tokyo, paid for by the Foreign Press Center Japan, a nonprofit that helps foreign journalists gather news there, framed the Paralympics as a chance to prepare for the coming change. Subway managers told me they are racing to retrofit all of their stations before the 2020 games. And the chief executive of a Japanese company called Xiborg, which makes blades for amputee sprinters, said he hopes the Paralympics will draw attention to the firm’s robotic prosthetics for elderly and disabled people.
The United States, too, must reckon with the implications of a graying population. But if the Paralympics are to play some role in amplifying issues of aging — or disability, in general — they will have to appeal to Americans in a different way.
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AMY PURDY, A double-amputee Paralympic snowboarder, stood at center stage, her back arched, a slinky dress hanging just above the knee as the music began. It was the opening ceremony for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, and for the next 4 1/2 minutes, the American athlete transfixed the crowd with a sultry, samba-inspired dance — some of it paired with a large, robotic arm.
The performance underscored an important, if uncomfortable, shift in the Paralympic movement: a growing tendency to emphasize the most attractive athletes — that is, those who look and perform like able-bodied Olympians.
“They’re getting closer and closer and closer to the Olympic movement and following, a bit slavishly, the Olympic model,” says Brittain, the Paralympics scholar. “And in doing so, they’re sort of cutting themselves off from their roots. Those who’ve got more severe disabilities tend to get sidelined, which sort of goes against the whole ethos of the Paralympic Games.”
However problematic the trend, though, the focus on the sleek and sexy may represent the best hope for drawing in American audiences. Even the robotic arm, if viewed as a stand-in for the increasingly high-tech gear employed by disabled athletes, suggests a path into the hearts of Americans who appreciate fancy cars and powerful smartphones.
Paralympics organizers can also play to Americans’ higher aspirations. We are, for instance, a country that loves the story of an underdog beating the odds, and Paralympians are exemplars of that ideal.
The Paralympics can tap a deep well of patriotism, too; the American teams in PyeongChang are filled with young veterans blinded by exploding mines or maimed by roadside bombs. A reverence for wounded warriors has allowed us to tell complex stories about injured soldiers — in TV shows, on film, and in the news media.
TV profiles of Olympic athletes often trade in cliches, and prime-time features on Paralympians would be no different. But such coverage could still offer a rounded look at the heroism and emotional life of athletes with disabilities.
And that’s what the Paralympics offers — a chance to get at something meaningful, if only for a couple of weeks. A country that can revel in the triumphs of the blind or amputee athlete — even the airbrushed version sure to be favored by NBC’s producers — is bound to have a fuller appreciation for the life of all Americans with disabilities.David Scharfenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe