The Paralympic Games: disability, sport and capitalism
Roddy Slorach asks what it means to be disabled in a society based on ruthless competition
The 2012 Paralympic games, starting in London next week, are set to be the biggest ever—with around 5,000 competitors from 147 countries.
They are also big business. Channel 4 paid millions for exclusive broadcasting rights, and hope to surpass the two million who watched the BBC’s coverage in 2008.
Their blockbuster trailer is called Meet the Superhumans. It now looks likely that almost all of the 2.5 million tickets available will be sold.
This is a big turnaround from a few decades ago. Before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney the Paralympics had almost no media exposure. In Los Angeles 1984 and Moscow 1980, Olympics organisers even refused to allow Paralympic games to take place in the same city.
Today corporate sponsors like Sainsbury’s and BT have realised that the real life stories of triumph over adversity represented by Paralympic athletes can help boost their sales.
But these “positive images” of exceptional achievement, however welcome some might be, have little relevance for most disabled people.
The most recognisable Paralympian, with his BT and deodorant adverts and a string of gold medals, is white South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. “The fastest man on no legs” races with two carbon fibre blades.
This year Pistorius has qualified to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics, after overturning legal claims that his blades give him an unfair advantage. His sporting motto is “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”
But Pistorius would probably not have triumphed had he been born black. He attended historically white Pretoria Boys High School, with its acres of playing fields.
Although black South Africans now have the right to vote, very few will ever have the opportunity to use facilities like these. In the same way, equality legislation has changed little in reality for most disabled people.
And the intense competition that comes with high level sport doesn’t always have a empowering effect. The pressure to win is immense. Four athletes at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing were banned for using illegal steroids.
Another performance-enhancing technique involves deliberately damaging limbs below a spinal injury to raise an athlete’s blood pressure.
At the 2008 Sydney games, Spain entered an “intellectually disabled” basketball team. They were stripped of their medals after IQ tests classified only two of the 12 team members as disabled enough to compete. But the whole notion of IQ draws on discredited theories about measuring intelligence.
In fact most people don’t fit into two neat categories of either “able bodied” or “disabled”. Who is really able bodied compared, say, to Usain Bolt?
Before Pistorius entered the Olympics, Paralympic archer Neroli Fairhall won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics and Im Dong Hyun, who is legally blind, set the first world record of London 2012 in the men’s archery contest.
High profile Olympians who are rarely seen as disabled include US swimmer Michael Phelps and British gymnast Louis Smith, both of whom have been diagnosed with the controversial attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
One poll last year showed that 65 percent of disabled adults think the Paralympics should be combined with the Olympics.
But the present day Paralympics include six major classifications of athletes, with complicated adjustments for degrees of impairment.
In many cases there are multiple versions of each event, taking account of physical differences such as the amount of movement in the arms or the degree of eyesight loss.
Combining the Games would mean huge pressure to reduce the amount of events and widen the categories of disability, excluding more severely impaired people, if not from the event itself, then at least from any realistic chance of success.
There are two other events with a separate history. The Deaflympics date back to 1924. Many deaf people don’t see themselves as disabled at all, but as a distinct community defined by sign language and a shared culture.
The Special Olympics have been held every four years since 1968, with 7,000 athletes from 170 countries competing at last year’s in Athens.
The official term used for the competitors—“intellectually disabled”—is controversial, lumping together people with a whole range of learning difficulties.
Physical and mental impairments vary widely in severity. They can occur at birth or later, especially in old age. The majority are invisible, such as epilepsy or mental health problems. But impairment—a limitation in how someone’s mind or body works—is not the same as disability.
Disability is a social phenomenon. It’s the discrimination that impaired people face in every area of life, from health and education to work or social care. This disability discrimination is rooted in the drive to make profit—the bottom line in capitalist society.
In periods of economic crisis, provision for disabled people is always one of the first things to be hit. The Tories and much of the media today claim disabled people are too dependent on welfare.
The myth is promoted that the only “genuinely disabled” people are incapable of work. In fact nearly half of Britain’s disabled population are still in paid employment. But disabled workers are seen as a “problem” because their labour often costs more.
Disability in this sense will only end when we live in a society based on production for need instead of for profit—one that’s organised on the socialist principle of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.
Games born out of world war
The Paralympic story started with Ludwig Guttmann, a Jewish neurosurgeon fleeing Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany. Guttmann had been forced to transfer to a Jewish-only hospital when the Nazis came to power in 1933.
After the antisemitic violence of Kristallnacht, Guttmann used his authority as a director to save 60 Jews who fled to the hospital to escape the fascist gangs.
The unusually full beds prompted a visit from the Gestapo, but Guttmann allayed their suspicions with a tour where he itemised an illness or injury for every patient.
In 1933 new laws enforced the sterilisation of disabled people. In 1939 Hitler authorised the Aktion-T4 plan to “purify” the Aryan race of those he considered “useless eaters”. More than 275,000 disabled people were murdered in the gas chambers alongside milions of Jewish people.
It was also in 1939 that Guttmann fled to Britain. The slaughter of two world wars saw the return of over 60,000 military amputees to Britain.
In 1943 the government asked Guttmann to set up Britain’s first spinal cord injury centre for war veterans in Stoke Mandeville, Staffordshire. He looked into new methods of treatment, rehabilitating whole people instead of just their bodies.
Patients soon began not only to undertake the physical therapy they badly needed, but also to regain their confidence by taking part in sport. They used sports like water polo to promote movement.
Guttmann formalised this with an archery competition for 16 wheelchair users to coincide with the opening day of the  London Olympics. He believed that disabled people deserved the chance to show their abilities.
The annual Stoke Mandeville games rapidly grew in renown. By 1988 they had become the Paralympic Games as we know them today, staged in parallel with the Olympics in the same host city.
Under attack from Tory cuts
The extra needs and costs of disability have won some recognition in elite sport, but elsewhere the trend is in the opposite direction.
The social support many disabled people need to achieve a level of independence, including benefits and rights won by years of campaigning, is being dismantled. Record levels of daily harassment are encouraged by relentless media campaigns against benefit “cheats” and “scroungers”.
The mob is led by Atos, the company paid by the government to assess whether disabled people are “fit for work”. Atos is the Paralympics’ main sponsor and the target of renewed protests.
Past Paralympians Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ade Adepitan have warned that benefit cuts will undermine wider access to sport.
The Tories are selling off school playing fields, contrary to promises made before the Games. And even if a would-be disabled athlete manages to find locally accessible transport and sports facilities, coaching and training costs are beyond the means of most.