Why a separate Paralympics should end and a unified Olympic Games should begin

Aug 17, 2020

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By Charles Catherine, Opinion contributor

In a pre-pandemic world we all would be talking about the joy and heartache that go with watching the world’s best athletes compete.

Many people are crushed that the Olympic Games are postponed for a year. For me, it is the Paralympic Games, originally scheduled to begin Aug. 24, that filled me with anticipation and now leaves me deflated.

I am blind and a Paralympic hopeful, training for years to qualify for the Tokyo games. I won’t know for some time if I make the team because the qualifying races were canceled because of COVID-19.

As I have time to reflect on the games, I can’t help but wonder if we really need this event. In some ways this separate competition feels like a sideshow, a reflection of a painful reality: we still think of disability as something other.

I have Paralympian friends who are world record holders and gold medalists, but they are not household names, and they often struggle even to find jobs.

The question I ask myself is whether it is time to merge the Paralympic and Olympic Games? Leading Paralympians, including six-time gold medalist David Weir, support the idea. In a time of so much discussion about equality, is it time to end the segregation of disabled athletes from their Olympic peers?

Logistics are an obstacle

There is a logistical argument against it. If we combine the two events, we would have 15,000 athletes and need a much larger Olympic village. Plus, the event would take longer to complete. Paradoxically, there would need to be a plan so that the Paralympics would not lose exposure. Otherwise, It is likely few if any disability events would enjoy prime time programming.

This would need to be a serious consideration. It makes me think of what André Malraux, activist and writer from my home country of France, said: “Without an audience, there are no heroes.”

Sponsors of the Olympics might say there is not the same interest in watching the games of  athletes with disabilities from around the world. I say they are wrong.

There is great interest in the games. The London 2012 Paralympics were a financial success. Organizers sold 2.72 million tickets, and 11.2 million people watched Channel 4 (the official broadcaster of the event in the UK) during its broadcast of the Paralympic opening ceremony. It was the channel’s biggest audience in a decade.

The Rio 2016 Paralympics numbers were not as great, but still sold 1.8 million tickets, which was slightly better than in Beijing in 2008 (1.7 million). These ticket sales show there is a market for this event, and potential sponsors know that with an estimated population of 1.3 billion worldwide, people with disabilities constitute an emerging market the size of China.

The International Olympic Committee, which represents able-bodied athletes, and the International Paralympic Committee have signed a memorandum of understanding that extends their cooperation to 2032, which could be altered if both organizations had the temerity to do so.

Let’s continue to champion inclusion

If we could find ways to overcome these obstacles, and organize an inclusive Olympic Games, it would send a powerful message.

Let’s not forget that when women joined the Olympics there needed to be changes, additional accommodations and more time allotted to the games. At the 1948 London Olympics for instance, there were only 4,104 athletes. Holding games with 11,238 athletes (as in Rio in 2016) would have seemed impossible.

When I compete in World Cup races, our event is usually right before the able-body athletes race. I get to socialize with my idols, experience them racing. In those precious moments, I feel like I am truly part of the national team, an elite athlete despite my disability. I believe that what is possible at the World Cup is also possible at the Olympics.

When we look back, we can see long historical forces leading us toward more inclusive societies; the Olympic Games are a window into this world. The inclusion of women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ athletes teaches us something we can learn about athletes with disabilities.

Gertrude Ederle, Jesse Owens and Matthew Mitcham were all trailblazers in their own way. Tomorrow the likes of Paralympic athletes Melissa Stockwell, David Brown and Moran Samuel might have a chance to be part of this history. All they need is an opportunity.

Charles Catherine is special assistant to the president of the National Organization on Disability.

This article was originally published in USA Today.

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