Are New Zealand's Paralympians getting due recognition for their athleticism?

Liam Malone wins the gold medal, with David Behre, of Germany, taking bronze.
CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS

Liam Malone wins the gold medal, with David Behre, of Germany, taking bronze.

ANALYSIS: Do our Paralympians get due recognition for their athletic achievements?

Isn't it now just normal to consider para-sport alongside any other sport?

Pascoe celebrates after winning a gold medal in the Women's 100m backstroke.
Hagen Hopkins

Pascoe celebrates after winning a gold medal in the Women's 100m backstroke.

Or, are disabled sports still sometimes ignored by prejudice, media bias, and favouritism for the national religion, rugby?

The numbers aren't in, yet, but the interest in the 2016 Rio Paralympic games has been huge.

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Sophie Pascoe competes in the women's 100m Backstroke at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Friedemann Vogel

Sophie Pascoe competes in the women's 100m Backstroke at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

 

Sophie Pascoe is a household name, she is now the foremost Paralympian in New Zealand history with 15 medals, and blade runner Liam Malone shot to stardom with his gold medal and record-breaking win in the 100m T44 final - beating the title held by Oscar Pistorius.

But it wasn't always so.

Victoria University PhD student Micheal Warren says the Paralympics epitomise New Zealand's underdog story.
SUPPLIED

Victoria University PhD student Micheal Warren says the Paralympics epitomise New Zealand's underdog story.

How does the disabled sporting world feel about how their athletes are perceived?

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Victoria University of Wellington sport and politics doctoral researcher Micheal​ Warren said the increase in coverage and New Zealand's story of a small nation punching above its weight helps explain the surge in interest in disabled sport.

Outside the four-year Olympic cycle, high performance sport struggled to maintain widespread interest, but the Paralympics in Rio marked a shift, as athletes such as Pascoe and Malone transcended disability.

Nikita Horwath.
SERGIO MORAES

Nikita Horwath.

He said the turning point could be traced to Sydney in 2000, when New Zealand's Olympic haul was disappointing but the Paralympic results were outstanding. 

Sir Paul Holmes - a huge advocate for disabled sport - presented the first regular live coverage on Kiwi television.

Other disabled sports, such as adaptive skiing, and events like the Invictus Games, have raised the profile of all-ability athleticism.

"There's less recognition out there [for Paralympians] but that's changing.

"It's superstars like Sophie Pascoe, she's transcended para-sport into the mainstream and she's a household name.

"The most heartening thing to see is the increased media coverage. It's the most extensive [free-to-air] coverage - about 180 hours."

So does the increase in coverage explain the increase in public recognition?

Partly.

"Sport is a huge part of New Zealand identity and the Olympics and Paralympics are the biggest sporting events in the world.

"[The Paralympics is] never going to get the same recognition as the All Blacks or the Olympics," Warren said.

Around the world, governments were providing more funding and grants, despite the budget cuts and financial struggles of the Rio contests.

Between 2013-16, the investment funded directly to the New Zealand Paralympic bid was $12.2 million, funding comparable to the Olympic funding for athletics, equestrian events, and yachting, and twice the funding of rugby sevens.

Of course, sport funding is a no-brainer for the Government, a great way to promote the country without spending a fortune.

Coverage of Paralympic sport has changed too, moving away from a focus on athletic disability to athleticism. Paralympians are high performance athletes, they train just as hard - if not harder - than Olympians.

Warren said coverage by traditional media was increasing and social media provided alternative channels for bigger audiences.

Take rugby union, a small sport by global standards played at the highest level by a half dozen or so countries. Other sports are more popular and Olympic games allow countries without mainstream sporting cultures - rugby, football, basketball, and so on - to get in on the action.

"For New Zealanders a big part of our identity is punching above our weight on the world stage. To New Zealand society in general it doesn't matter what adversity you have, there are still avenues. Actually you can be a gold medallist. For a young kid with a disability you can't quantify that."

Sport has barriers, in funding, grants, training facilities - barriers not unique to para-sports.

"The All Blacks are the cornerstone of New Zealand identity. It's almost a religion. Paralympics and Olympics epitomise our national identity better because they are often underdogs."

Not everyone plays rugby, or football, and the next best thing is obviously the world stage.

"All sports have funding challenges. All these sports want more Government funding. How long is a piece of string?  

"I think Paralympics New Zealand are much more financially stable than other paralympic committees. That's down to [central funding] and the public, perhaps, hold our Paralympians in higher esteem than other countries. I think the tide is turning.

"Sophie Pascoe is the most decorated Paralympian. She has transcended it, she has normalised it. She's being talked about globally. The Olympics might be a peg above but the Paralympics are getting there.

"The more New Zealanders see Paralympians competing on the live stage, having more coverage, the more normal it is and the more people care.

"We're a small country, we don't have a big economy or a huge population. Where we can get noticed it's on the sporting field. Not everyone plays rugby in New Zealand, I think that's where the Paralympics have huge potential, to compete globally and get recognition."

Halberg Disability Sport Foundation chief executive Shelley McMeeken​ said the Paralympic games were still in their infancy. The foundation runs the Halberg Awards and supports sport access for young disabled people.

"It's evolving and moving very quickly. 

"There's always more that we can do. I've seen the profile of Paralympics get larger and larger. Because of the performance of the Paralympians, we hope there's a flurry of people who want to get into athletics and swimming. Because they see what our Paralympians are capable of."

It's a long way from the old days, when the Paralympics were second fiddle to the "main" event and even staged in separate cities to the Olympics.

A report by Disability Rights Promotion New Zealand said media often reported stories about disabled people focusing on medical issues or portraying disabled people as "super-human", a tendency labelled as disappointing.

But, the coverage of disabled sports was improving, the study said.

However, before the Rio games, there were real worries about budget cuts, funding, and tickets sales.

In January, the Paralympics had sold only 300,000 of three million tickets. Poor sales were compounded by Brazil's recession, which hit the Olympics and then the Paralympics.

Last month, the International Paralympic Committee president Philip Craven said the games faced the worst crisis in its 56-year history. The IPC imposed cuts, downsized the workforce, transport services and cancelled some media centres. 

On the other side, Rio will play host to more Paralympic events and more countries than any other contest.

 - Stuff

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