The Paralympic Games – A Cultural or a Sports Event?

From its inception in the late 1940s the founder of the international disability sport movement, Ludwig Guttmann, described the aims of his use of sport in the rehabilitation process of the spinally injured to be social re-integration and to change the perceptions of the non-disabled within society regarding what people with disabilities were capable of. This continued to be the underlying message of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) regarding the Paralympic Games and international disability sport for many years. These kinds of aims and the language associated with them (e.g. social integration, changing perceptions etc) possibly led to the Paralympic Games being perceived primarily as a cultural games rather than one that is about sport. Cultural games have as their aim an ethos of fostering self-respect and belief amongst their participants as well as helping to solidify their social identity as a group. Other examples of cultural games include the Gay Games and the Maccabiah Jewish Games. However, the last eight to ten years or so, have seen a distinct shift in the language used and the aims set out by the International Paralympic Committee. The language used is now much more about sport than disability as these two items on the mission statement of IPC clearly shows:

  • To promote and contribute to the development of sport opportunities and competitions, from initiation to elite level, for Paralympic athletes as the foundation of elite Paralympic sport
  • To promote the self-governance of each Paralympic sport either as an integral part of the international sport movement for able-bodied athletes, or as an independent sport organization, whilst at all times safeguarding and preserving its own identity.

(Paralympic Mission, Chapter 1.1; IPC Website, 2012)

Although references to identity and integration are still inherent within the statements the focus is explicitly on sport and sporting opportunities. There is no mention of disability with the exception of its inherent connection with the word Paralympic and all the mentions of the word Paralympic are in connection with elite athletes and sport. It is possible that the reasons for this change hinge upon the fact that the advent of the social model of disability and the increasing influence of disability politics within societies in general meant that recognition of disability issues was much more prevalent. This allowed disability sport and elite disability sport in particular to shift the focus of its aims away from the acceptance of people with disabilities as potentially productive members of society to gaining their acceptance as elite athletes irrespective of any impairment they might have. It is equally possible that the close working relationship between the IPC and the Olympic movement have played a key role in this process as IPC have moved to model themselves more closely upon the way the IOC operates.

There can be little doubt that, historically speaking, there was a definite need for the disability movement in general to take a cultural model approach in all areas in order to try and remove the cloak of near invisibility cast over it by the rest of society and to highlight the fact that people with disabilities were capable of amazing feats, just like anyone else within society. One of the most successful and visible avenues through which these aims have been achieved is through sport. However, disability sport has been so successful that the language and aims of the cultural model approach reached a point whereby they were preventing people with disabilities from being accepted in some quarters as athletes within non-disabled definitions of what constitutes an ‘athlete’, which often conjures up images of physical perfection  and sporting prowess that most of the non-disabled population could never achieve. By constantly referring to disability and the exploits of ‘disabled’ sportsmen and women this not only re-emphasised an element of difference, but also continued to highlight the oxymoronic nature between the non-disabled understandings of words such as ‘disabled’ and ‘athlete’ when the two words were brought together. By taking a sport model approach, which emphasises the athleticism of athletes with disabilities and using words such as Paralympian, which, although still understood to mean an athlete with disability, negates the need for any mention of the disability itself, the aims of the cultural model approach can still be achieved without the inherent problems of such an approach as mentioned above. By becoming ‘Parallel Olympians’ athletes with disabilities can try to get away from the oxymoron that ‘disabled athlete’ may be perceived as and associate themselves with a movement which sells itself as being about sport as a vehicle for peace and understanding as well as sport of the very highest level. In this way both the cultural and sporting aims of the Paralympic Movement can be met in a positive and constructive context.

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