Is the Paralympic Games a second-class event?

Dr Tatiane Hilgemberg

Assistant Professor in Communication and a researcher at Roraima Federal University, Brazil. She received her doctorate in Communication from State University of Rio de Janeiro and her Masters in Communication Science at Porto University. Her research interests include Critical Disability Studies and Sports, Stereotypes, Minorities and the Media.

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

The 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games have brought a new curiosity into the study of Brazilian news media coverage, since it is the first event after Rio 2016, where the viewing records were broken, the TV audience, for example, reached 4.1 billion people in more than 150 countries. However, a quick analysis of media coverage of the Tokyo Games showed that Brazilian media walked backwards, especially in terms of amount of coverage.

SporTV, the Brazilian main channel on paid TV, responsible for broadcasting both events had four different channels completely dedicated to the Olympic Games, and they offered more than 840 hours of broadcast. During the Paralympic Games only one channel was responsible for the transmission, with a little bit more than 100 hours dedicated to live streaming the 20 sports where there were Brazilians competing. Adding to it there was little coverage, and even less live streaming from non-paid TV channels, the print media and several news websites did not give the same importance to both sports events.

The quality of the coverage is also something to look at. When analyzing how Paralympic athletes were portrayed by the media, a category of analysis keeps coming back: the comparison between Paralympic and Olympic athletes. This is not exclusive to the Brazilian media. An analysis of the British media coverage by Thomas and Smith and the study of the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail by Chang, Crossman, Taylor and Walker, just to name a few, showed the same tendency for newspaper coverage to draw these types of comparisons.

On the Brazilian media, Daniel Dias, one of the most decorated athletes in history, having won 27 Paralympic medals, and who announced his retirement, is compared with Michael Phelps, because of his achievements. In an interviewed Dias stated that he is glad to be compared with a successful athlete, but he wants to be known and recognized as a Paralympic athlete. Petrúcio Ferreira, a Brazilian sprinter, has been called the Paralympian Bolt. A similar name was given to Alan Fonteles, another Brazilian sprinter, in 2012. These are only a few examples. 

On the one hand, the comparison between Paralympic and Olympic athletes could seem to be an attempt to emphasize the excellent performance of athletes with disabilities; but, one the other hand making these comparisons could disqualify Paralympians by the need to legitimate their success, giving the idea that they are emulating ‘able-bodiedness’.

In many ways sports and physical activities for people with disabilities is a way of dealing with disability as a stigma, aiding the perception that disabled people are not significantly different from non-disabled. And as pointed out by Thomas and Smith, this use of comparisons to non-disabled Olympic athletes by journalists could be founded in this very idea. However, this practice undermines the attempts of athletes with disability to build their own identity.

One example of the Paralympic Games seen as a second-class event in comparison with the Olympic Games is the book Paralympics: where heroes come, by Steadward and Peterson. This title, as explained by the authors on the book preface, was inspired by an advertising slogan for the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, “(…) the Olympics is where heroes are made. The Paralympics is where heroes come”. In these sentences lays the idea that an Olympic hero arises from high performance conquered by one’s effort, training, and discipline; it is an active process. In contrast, all Paralympic athletes are heroes, generalizing heroism to all, regardless of their accomplishments; it is a passive process. Showing up is all it takes to become a Paralympic hero. This disparity interiorizes Paralympians and the importance of their athleticism, achievements, training, strategy, organization, and resistance.

The tendency to draw comparisons between Olympic and Paralympic athletes targets the legitimacy of Paralympians, that seems to be reached only when media coverage establishes relations between the two events. Paralympic athletes do not want to be compared to others; they want to write their names on sports history through their own achievements.

The importance of media is undeniable, so when the Paralympic Games and athletes received significantly less coverage than their counterparts and this coverage is stereotyped, we can conclude that the Paralympic Games is seen as a second-class event by the media.