Almanac Paralympics: A Question of Elite

The 2016 Rio Paralympics came to a close this week, the event, the triumphs, the heartbreak and the accompanying human stories have left me with a curious aftertaste.


I have been debating with myself the various virtues of the Paralympics, listening to the opinions of others in relation to the merits of elite sport and the place that Paralympic athletes hold, why sponsorship and public exposure is limited to a few and whether they hold the same place in our sporting conscious.


Interestingly, I think this may be the first post in the Almanac on the 2016 Paralympics and clearly the 2016 Rio Olympics received more coverage.


There have been some media commentators that have freely expressed their difficulty in getting excited about the Paralympics as they would for other elite sporting events and that only families and friends would hold any interest in these sports.


Most of the criticism stems from the classification codes and naivety in understanding the respective disabilities and the overriding question of whether Paralympic athletes are elite sports people.


These opinions have disturbed me, possibly because I initially agreed with element of these arguments. I love my sport and love watching sporting challenges. And it is this reason that I sat back and questioned myself as to what it is that I love so much about sport and where does the Paralympics sit.


Sport is high drama, pure theatre that entertains the masses held in the grandest of stages around the world. It delivers stories of human emotion, from the competitors to the spectators; we all invest our emotion and our passion. Sport also reflects the challenges in life, triumph over adversity and the parallels in the lessons that life and sport teach us, the inspiration, the motivation and the results. Sport encompasses many physical challenges and requires skill with uniquely different aspects of our body and more importantly it requires significant mental strength to become an elite performer.


Paralympians tick every box, more so than most sports we passionately follow.


As a sporting event, the Paralympics was set on the biggest stage possible. After a slow start, Rio was the second most attended Paralympics in history.


More than 4000 athletes from 160 nations competing in 20 sports and about 500 events, there were around 6000 media representatives in attendance, reporting live on site and a broadcast deal with a global reach.


The stories of inspiration, triumph over adversity is stronger than in any other sporting event. Every athlete has had to overcome a physical and mental disability of some degree to even get to the starting line and not even mentioning the disability of social and cultural acceptance. One Australian athlete, 15 year old Tiffany Thomas Kane, a Gold medallist swimmer with hypochondroplasia, a form of dwarfism was a victim of bullying at her school in Sydney. She said the Paralympics “just made me really happy”. “It’s taken everything away.”


Each of the athletes has trained to be the best within their disability; they have accepted the challenge to be the best they can. They also carried the hopes of their nation but more importantly they carried the hopes of their friends and families for only they knew the true hardships that these athletes have had to overcome. From my perspective, these athletes performed with the same degree of pride as all able bodied athletes.


So, why don’t we love the Paralympics?


It must be the classification of athletes that tends to turn us off, and I must admit I had no idea during the TV coverage who was competing against whom and why. I watched highlights with packages explaining what their event was, but I could not get emotionally involved in the respective event when there were so many variances within the one event, however I was excited by the athlete and their performance.


According to the Australian Paralympic Committee’s website, “Each Paralympic sport has sport-specific minimal disability criteria that athletes must meet in order to be eligible for the sport. By grouping similar athletes together, an athlete’s disability plays less of an impact on the outcomes of competition. This means that classification helps to allow the fastest, strongest or best athletes in each class to succeed in their sport.”


Disabilities are grouped into six major categories; Amputee, Cerebral Palsy, Intellectual Disability, Visually Impaired, Wheelchair and Other which refers to mobility impairment or loss of physical function that does not fall into the other categories. This category is named Les autres from the French for the others.


Within each category there are several classifications and each sport has its own classification. An individual needs to be classified by the respective body for that sport. The classification may need to be reviewed if the individual’s condition deteriorates or impairment worsens.


The classification is more difficult to follow than the many boxing weight divisions and authorities. As there are so many aspects to disability I can see this as being the only fair way for the athletes to compete, but it does do my head in. Get your heads around the classification and you will start to understand the athletes and embrace the complexities.


So is it just the classification issue that denies greater popularity and respect amongst the sporting community?


I have heard the argument that Paralympians are not competing in elite sports and as such are not elite athletes. This is a position that I really struggle with, what makes you elite? Why should one sportsperson be more elite than another?


My theory is that it sits with the respective media profile, the more an athlete is talked about and watched the higher the profile. In AFL football players are classified A, B, C etc with elite players getting all the press money and attention. In swimming we have performers that win medals and break records and the sponsors love them, raising their profile, they become elite. This formula follows just about every sport.


We have sports that are elite because the media directs mass attention. In Australia we have AFL, NRL, A-League, Rugby Union, Swimming, Cricket, Supercars and maybe Netball. There are many sports that have elite performers that do not get the attention and as such are not considered by the wider population as elite. In Ten Pin bowling there is Jason Belmonte winning trophies and championships in the US, Squash has produced numerous elite performers and the same can be said about Sailing, Lawn Bowls, Cycling, Baseball, the list with all the media neglected sports is endless.


Paralympic athletes are elite. The best beating the best and themselves, this is my criteria, simple as that. Ryley Batt, the Australian Wheelchair Rugby player is clearly elite. I sat up through the night watching the “Steelers” in their quest for gold against the US, winning in double overtime. Ryley’s involvement was no different than watching a Gary Ablett Jnr or Ian Thorpe or Buddy Franklin. He was totally dominating; his ability to score and dominate electrified the sport and compelled me to stay up for the entire game and every game in the tournament.


The Gold medal match for Wheelchair Rugby or “Murderball” as it is affectionately named, was played in a sold out arena. Watching the coverage, I felt this sport could tour and would sell out stadiums, it is incredibly exciting and a sport worthy of elite sponsorship and media attention. Same goes for Wheelchair Basketball.


Watching the Paralympics with my kids was a great experience. I was able to tell my children that these athletes are as good as the other Olympians that we recently witnessed. My daughter in particular was excited when Australia won gold, she didn’t care about the disability of the athlete, she cheered every Australian athlete who competed. My daughter now has a greater respect of the Paralympians than before. The Paralympics allowed us as parents to share with them an acceptance of people from all walks of life.


The slogan of the Australian Paralympic team is “Believe in our Paralympians”. Clearly it has had an impact on some and maybe there is a growing acceptance of Paralympic athletes, particularly when compared to able bodied athletes.


An athlete is an athlete, they compete in a sport limited only by their ability to improve and challenge themselves to be the best they can.


I welcome the Paralympics into my sporting family, I have jumped on board and there is plenty of room for you to join me.

About David Parker

A keen observer of all things sport and a Swans tragic, David likes to dabble in sporting documentaries including the Max Bailey doco for Fox Footy. David is currently filming a documentary on the Australian Cycling Men's Team Pursuit squad as they prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics.


  1. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said David, in total agreeance. The Paralympics are a wonderful event featuring extremely high quality athletes.
    My two young boys became hooked and were up early every morning to watch, which I thought was great.
    The “Murderball” final was as exciting a spectacle to watch as you would see. My other highlight was Australian Cerebal Palsy athlete James Turner winning the 800m in World Record time. A bold, aggresive run that was just brilliant to watch.

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