Every four years the Paralympic and the Olympic games combine to become the largest single sporting movement on the globe. The combination of these sporting events is characterised by a complex and often contradictory relationship. The Paralympics are intended as a parallel event to the Olympics and it is a relationship that often sees the Paralympics as nothing more than a “side show” to the Olympics. This relationship introduces questions about whether it is in the best interests of the sports people with disabilities and Paralympian athletes. There is also a concern that aspects of the Paralympics reinforce outdated notions about the abilities, status and place of sports people with disabilities in society and sport. This paper briefly documents progressive moves in the last 50 years of the 20th Century to develop a closer relationship between the two sporting movements organising bodies and explores some of the dilemmas and contradictions that emerge from these moves. The authors argue that while the Paralympics has led to significant beneficial outcomes, not least developing a positive profile of the achievements of athletes with disabilities, the association with the Olympics has some troubling aspects. The authors question the need for a parallel event suggesting that the current dual format only perpetuates outdated stereotypes about ability and disability and reinforces a paternalism and devaluation of the achievements of Paralympians. The chapter argues that much of protocols and systems of classification in the Paralympics contradict contemporary thinking about sportsmen and women by concentrating on the notion of disability. This use of a medical model reliant on “deficit” theory as the organising logic of the Paralympic games contradicts the obsession of the Olympics with human performativity that challenges boundaries of faster, higher and stronger. The authors suggest that the success of the Olympics has been based on the imagery of the perfect athletic body. Olympic mythology and culture has been underpinned by fantasies about bodily perfection and can be traced through the work of Leni Refenstahal’s Olympia movie in 1936 to commercial coverage of today. This Olympic obsession with the imagery of bodily perfection contradicts much of the contemporary theorisation about disabilities and reverses many advances made in rights for sports people with disabilities.
This book chapter is published as Kell, P, Kell, M and Price, N, Two games and one movement? The Paralympics and the Olympic movement, in Kell, P, Vialle, W, Konza, D and Vogl, G (eds), Learning and the learner: exploring learning for new times, University of Wollongong, 2008, 236p. Complete book available here.