A different set of values

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 13:28 02/09/2012

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Martin van Beynen

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I can watch just about any sport.

If I'm at a football ground for Saturday morning sport I can be absorbed in any game. Perhaps we are drawn instinctively to any contest to see whether our interests can be furthered.

I will be watching some of the Paralympic Games in London because the grit and skill of the contestants will no doubt be astounding. It will be the best Paralympics ever. I can predict they will be exciting, inspiring and motivating.

Almost as predictable will be the outcry from some quarters when the mainstream media does not give the Games the attention they believe it deserves.

The argument starts at the funding stage. Disabled athletes and their advocates, particularly overseas, have railed against the discrepancies between the money going to Olympic standard athletes and Paralympic athletes. In 2003, three Paralympic athletes sued the United States Olympic Committee about the issue and although they were ultimately unsuccessful in the courts, more funding came their way.

The BBC was widely criticised for it parsimonious coverage of the 2010 Winter Paralympics and, taking note, for these Games the commercial British broadcaster Channel 4 plans 150 hours of coverage and has also put in place mobile applications and dedicated streaming channels of additional coverage.

The argument that Paralympic sport should be treated on a par with Olympic sport is sort of on a winning streak.

I think I understand the argument. The competition is just as tough, the athletes just as dedicated if not more so given their disabilities, and the games just as entertaining and skilful as any able-bodied games. The two events are different but in sports terms equally as important, goes the argument.

Inspirational Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius embodies this way of thinking.

Before the Games, he said other countries could learn a lot from Britain's enlightened approach to hosting the 2012 Paralympics. You might recall that the South African Pistorius, 25, recently became the first double-amputee to run in the Olympics, where he reached the semifinals of the 400m. At the Paralympics, he is competing in the 100m, 200m, 400m, and in the relay.

"There are a lot of people that are going to watch these Games around the world that are going to be forced in a way to see these Paralympics through the eyes of the people of the UK. And I think that is a great thing. There are a lot of people here that don't focus on the disability any more, they focus on the athletes' ability," he said.

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Good luck to him.

I just don't buy it all and it doesn't do anybody any good to pretend the two Games are on a par and should be treated the same.

In a society which increasingly succumbs to hype and suspends its sense of reality, some lines need to be drawn. The term disabled will soon be a no-no. Differently abled will be the approved lexicon.

It's great some disabled people find meaning and purpose in sport and the training and discipline it requires. I'm not convinced, however, that if I can somehow overcome my prejudices and narrow thinking, I am going to see elite Paralympic sport in the same light as elite able-bodied sport.

For a start, the Paralympics classification system presents a major problem. Within the six disability categories, athletes still need to be classed according to their level of impairment. The main problem with the system is providing for the wide variety and severity of disabilities. The range of impairments means it is very difficult to make it a fair contest. The scope for cheating must be enormous.

Compared to able-bodied sport, the pool of disabled athletes is very small. That doesn't diminish their achievements and shouldn't affect our pride when New Zealand Paralympic athletes come home with medals, but let's not pretend top disabled athletes have to rise above the sort of competition faced by the able- bodied.

You also have to wonder if trying to put Paralympic sport on an equal footing with Olympic sport is self-defeating. The idea behind Paralympic sport is to encourage the disabled to extend themselves through sport and to encourage an acceptance and understanding of the disabled by the wider community.

Treating the Paralympics like some elite sporting contest that we should all be watching like the Olympics is sending the message that, like all elite sport, winning is far more important than participation. Instead of a friendly contest where talented disabled people meet for some fun and don't get too hung up about the level of impairment, it's now so serious that it becomes more about funding, coaching and cheating. The same could be said for able- bodied sport, of course, but that doesn't mean disabled sport needs to make the same mistake, especially when the barriers for disabled people to participate in sport are already much greater.

That is not to say we shouldn't take the Paralympics seriously. But let's avoid comparing it to the Olympic Games.

- The Press

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