How big is the developed nation/ developing nation gap in Paralympic sport?

There has long been debate and argument regarding the potential advantages developed nations have over developing nations when it comes to athlete preparation for the Olympic Games and other non-disabled sports. These range from far better facilities and equipment to better diet to better trained coaching and support staff to just having more money available to prepare athletes and teams. With the increasing importance of the Paralympic Games this debate has been widened to include athletes with disabilities, especially those requiring expensive equipment such as racing wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs, as has been highlighted in several recent articles regarding the plight of the Cambodian Paralympic team. Although there can be little argument over the cost of such equipment, some research I did a few years ago highlighted some quite surprising results regarding medal success at the Athens Paralympic Games.

 An analysis of the Athens Paralympic Games medal table shows that 135 nations took part and 75 of them won medals. This research began with the premis that the more economically strong a country, the more likely it would be able to provide services and opportunities to their disabled population, especially in what is an arguably non-essential area such as sport. Whilst acknowledging that is a contentious idea, in terms of the problems faced by disabled people in terms of access to education and jobs, with the ensuant poverty that this often leads to for many disabled people, then providing sporting activities for the disabled is arguably an area that is only open to those countries with the strongest economies. The paralympic medal table fromAthenswas therefore used to compare the relative success of the countries that won medals with their GDPpc in order to see if there really was any link between economic prosperity and sporting success at the Paralympic Games.  Spearman’s rank correlation was used to compare the relative success of each nation winning a Paralympic medal inAthenswith their corresponding GDPpc. Success was judged by awarding three points for a gold medal, two for a silver and one for a bronze with countries being ranked on a points total basis. The same calculations were carried out for countries winning Olympic medals inAthens. The results were as follows:

Spearman Rank Correlation

Olympics

Paralympics

Success against GDPpc

0.360   (99.5%)

0.435   (99.9%)

Team Size against GDPpc

0.345   (99.0%)

0.395   (99.9%)

Team Size against Success

0.848   (>99.9%)

0.902   (>99.9%)

Table 1. Spearman Rank correlation results for Olympic and Paralympic medal winning countries in Athens 2004.

 As can be seen, there is only a weak correlation between success and the economic prosperity of a country, although the correlation does appear to be slightly stronger for the Paralympics. On the basis that the bigger the team sent to the Games the greater the cost team size was then compared against GDPpc, but perhaps more surprisingly than the first result there was again only a weak correlation, which was again slightly higher for the Paralympics. Finally, team size was compared against success with somewhat surprising results given the results for the first two sets of correlations. Both showed a strong correlation, with the Paralympics again coming out slightly higher.

 This would appear to indicate that the bigger the team a country sends, and, therefore, by definition, the more money they spend, the greater the opportunity for success. However, what is really interesting about this, given the results of the first two calculations, is that it appears it is not just the economically strong and prosperous countries that are willing to spend large amounts of money in order to try and attain success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This appears to clearly hint at the international significance and political importance that success at these Games has attained and the amount of valuable national resources even the poorest countries are willing to invest in order to try and achieve that success.

 Taking the analysis of the Athens medal tables in a slightly different direction I then looked at the distribution of Olympic and Paralympic medals at Athens 2004 by continent.

 

Africa

Americas

Asia

Olympic Medals

9

13

6

59

60

56

66

50

47

Pts (%)

59pts (3.3%)

353pts (19.8%)

339pts (19.0%)

Countries

11

12

13

Paralympic Medals

50

40

30

86

69

96

117

97

88

Pts (%)

260pts (8.4%)

492pts (15.8%)

633pts (20.4%)

Countries

11

11

14

Medals at both Games

6

7

9

 

Europe

Oceania

 
Olympic Medals

149

162

192

9

13

16

 
Pts (%)

963pts (54.0%)

69pts (3.9%)

 
Countries

37

2

 
Paralympic Medals

234

272

278

32

32

39

 
Pts (%)

1524pts (49.0%)

199pts (6.4%)

 
Countries

37

2

 

Medals at both Games

32

2

 
                             

 Table 2. Distribution of medal success at the Athens 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games by continental affiliation.

 This table clearly demonstrates the dominance of Europe at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games in terms of success. However given the origins of both the Games themselves, their founders and the majority of the sports included in their respective programmes this may not be altogether surprising. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the table is the performance of the African nations at the Paralympic Games, when compared to the Olympic Games, jumping from 3.3% at the Olympics to 8.4% at the Paralympics. This is especially surprising given that the highest ranked country by GDPpc (RSA) was only 76th in the world and the only other African country to appear in the top 100 was Botswana at 84th. This would appear to be further proof that the economic status of a country has little if any bearing on success at the Paralympic Games. It is possible that poverty and war inAfrica have lead to greater numbers of disabled people and, therefore, a higher possibility of finding and training a successful Paralympic athlete. The greater number of events at the Paralympic Games borne out of the classification system may also play a part in increasing opportunities for success. However, this does not explain why these countries should spend time and money on recruiting and training these athletes given the other problems such as poverty, corruption and war prevalent within many African nations.

 In conclusion then it cannot be denied that developed nations have an huge economic advantage in preparing athletes for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games many of the developing nations are investing in Paralympic sport often with far greater success than at the Olympic Games.

———————

Post adapted from Brittain, I., 2006, Paralympic success as a measure of  national social and economic development, International Journal of Eastern Sport and Physical Education, Vol. 4(1), 38-47.

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