John Loeppky is a disabled freelance journalist currently living in Regina.
Every four years parasport athletes, coaches and fans are sold a fallacy. They are told that this will be the best, the biggest, the brightest, media package that the Paralympic movement has ever seen. Ads promoting hundreds, or thousands, of hours of games leave folks salivating, only to be disappointed. This was as true this year as it has been for the past decade or so.
Now, it’s important for me to say at the outset that I have a bias here. Not only did I used to compete in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby – don’t worry, I was never at risk of being named to a Paralympic roster – I now spend much of my journalistic life covering parasport. I have a vested interest in seeing these sports grow, but in order for that to happen those who make decisions – who, by the way, are largely non-disabled – have a few hurdles to get over.
You see, the Paralympics are a crisis in terms. They are a sporting event with a social model of disability ethos. They preach equality, equity and inclusion despite refusing to allow some athletes to compete because their impairments (their word, not mine) do not meet their diagnostic (also known as classification) criteria. The movement dodges this by putting their most transcendent (I wish there were a font for sarcasm) athletes out on display and hoping for the best. As a result, much of the advertising and commentary for the Paralympics centre around disability more than sports itself because that’s what the general audience – and funders – have decided is interesting. The most high-profile ad campaign in parasport history was British television network C4′s “We’re the Superhumans.” Despite much of the good the movement has done, this isn’t about nuance.
Disabled athletes often cloak themselves in this same gown of inspiration because it’s a way to survive. When the entire fabric of society is telling you that you are a worthless – cough, cough – rationing of care during a global pandemic, cough, who can blame these athletes for protecting themselves against these murderous narratives? I do not, however, even as a seasoned viewer, want to listen to announcers who don’t know the rules of the game I’m watching or who only have interest in telling me that the person scoring at that moment developed meningitis as a child. Paralympic coverage discusses the injury report more than even the most obsessive of baseball reporters, and it does so without context.
Much of the focus for the Tokyo Games, which wrapped up last month, was spent on the hundreds of hours of webcast and highlight package content across major networks such as the CBC and NBC. Sure, hundreds of hours looks cool on paper, and I commend the work of those on the ground, but highlight packages and livestreams do not build audience. If you are a lifelong sports fan, you probably began your journey watching a full game or two, went to a live competition and went from there. You were unlikely to become a sports fanatic from a late-night highlight package.
Even worse, in Tokyo, we had athletes openly questioning if the announcers tasked with covering the games were qualified to do so. Many former athletes I know chose to watch on mute rather than to scream in frustration. You would not announce a round of golf without knowing the rules of the sport, but boccia fans had to listen to announcers who didn’t know a good shot from a bad one.
Little-experienced colour commentary existed at these Paralympics – largely, I suspect, to do with pandemic restrictions – but that led those announcers who were ill-equipped to pull double duty and not provide much-needed insight. I’m not saying wheelchair basketball or wheelchair rugby are simple games to understand at the elite level, let alone goalball or boccia, but we get stuck in this feedback loop of explaining the basics every four years without diving any deeper. You cannot throw experienced broadcasters with no knowledge of parasport onto a livestream and expect a good experience. Networks get to hide from that reality because disabled athletes are forced to be thankful for what little they get.
Part of the issue is that, much like niche non-disabled sports, this is the one time many audience members will see these athletes compete. Putting parasport’s best foot forward is a challenge because the narrative scripts seemingly write themselves. We’re starting to see more coverage as disputes over classification rise, disqualifications happen and fans begin to realize the Paralympians sometimes test positive for performance-enhancing substances, too. To this I say, more please.
In order for the Paralympics to grow, there needs to be more long-form and in-depth coverage (warts and all), more experienced announcers, more media training for athletes and a commitment to showing full-length games. Parasport coverage will stagnate if the only selling point is an athlete’s inspiration or the novelty of seeing sports on wheels or carbon fibre legs. These are established sports, with fascinating narratives. Let’s treat them as such.
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