The birth of the Modern Olympics occurred from the lasting influence of the ancient Games tracing back to 776 BC. Dedicated to Olympian gods and goddesses, the Games were a collection of festivals of the cult of Zeus which had strong indications of the importance of ‘mystical beauty’ and godlike grandeur. Male only competitors were celebrated for their great physical triumphs and rewarded with a rich abundance of materials such as money, women, a life time of free meals, and marked medallions/cauldrons of bronze and gold inscribed with their victories.
These athletes were perceived more as heroes than every day humans, as portraited sculptures were erected throughout Olympia to commemorate their winnings, and they would be idealistic in regards to physical power and perfected beauty, much like the basis of Greek mythology and the hierarchy involved. The celebration of the Ancient Games was also an occasion for surrounding city-states to discuss important political issues, celebrate common military victories, and to even form political and martial alliances in the process.
Despite the rough 1,500-year gap between the Ancient Games and the establishment of the Modern Games – many of the core values and intentions are still held to this day surrounding the importance of aesthetic and the quiet push for political and social perfection. This can especially be seen through the clear divide that’s still left between Paralympians and ‘able-bodied’ athletes.
The Paralympics were brought about on a basis of functionality and medical experimentation and improvement, intending to rehabilitate rather than celebrate the body and its abilities. Only until 1960 did it attempt to encapsulate the qualities of the Olympics and the nature of competition, however still unfortunately remains unpopular in comparison today. Since racism and sexism were already prevalent within the Olympics since its re-establishment in 1896; the Paralympics would inevitably struggle against discrimination and seeking equality to this day.
Many reasons lie behind this obvious divide – one being that disabled Olympians lack the consideration due to the deep history and long-awaited creation of the Olympics itself without the contribution and consistent voice of Paralympians – a term that was only formed as little as 50 years ago. Since the Olympic Games for able-bodied athletes was born over 2,000 years ago, half a century allows little time for significant change when it has taken that time alone to even partially include Paralympians in global competitive sport.
The Olympic Games were also seemingly utilised to boost political influence and power at times rather than celebrating true sportsmanship and perseverance – since if it were based on the latter, Paralympians would ultimately deserve more credit for their efforts. One example of this is the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Nazi Germany exploited the popular event to bedazzle and impress foreign spectators and journalists with a ‘peaceful, tolerant image of Germany’. Advertisements and posters leading up to the Games idealised athletes’ well-developed muscle tone and heroic strength, and accentuated ostensibly ‘Aryan’ features. This alone reflected the importance of physical fitness for the regime (a prerequisite for military service) and points to a long history of why disability sport was disregarded due to governments seeking martial respect and attention towards political performance and/or visual/physical prowess.
Similarly, after the 1980 Summer Olympics, Russia was invited to also host the Paralympics that same year. As a response, officials noted that disability sport was not well-developed and passed the opportunity blatantly by simply denying the existence of such citizens – “There are no invalids in the USSR!”
This was paired with the rejection of an able-bodied South African team to compete in the Olympic Games that year, due to the racist ideals in Moscow at the time. As well as the disregard of Paralympians and their rights, the Olympics struggled with equal integration of female athletes of which was put into place in the 1900 Summer Olympics in France. Although this was a great achievement for women’s rights, female athletes still suffered gravely from public opinions based around appearance and function and were still prohibited from some events. When women were first permitted to compete in track and field events 28 years later in the Netherlands, the public (- assuming it was mostly male-dominated) complained, saying that the sight of the women exhausted at the end of a race was “too disturbing”, “a pitiful spectacle; to see these girls tumble down like dead sparrows” and that “this distance is far too strenuous for women.” Following the 1928 Games, women were no longer allowed to compete in races longer than 200m until 1960.
Although racism and sexism within the Olympics doesn’t apply directly to the rights of Paralympians; the importance of aesthetic and what is ideal in accordance to political and public demand still runs deeply through the foundations of this worldwide sporting event. The rights of people and their vision of equality is yet to be integrated into the intentions of the Olympic Games – and in my opinion will remain ‘off topic’ only until there is some direct push to recognise the unifying effects of sport and to stop utilising the Games’ commercial and political advantages for some sort of gain.
I believe the Paralympics should occur within the 2 weeks of the Olympic Games and that they should share one label. There is no reason as to why Paralympians cannot utilise the same stadiums, receive the same coverage, and in turn potentially boost the interest and excitement around such events. Throughout the history of the Olympics, the way in which it is held and put forth to the public eye, immensely influences the way in which it is consumed and regarded. To use this power in a way that highlights the integrity, perseverance, resilience and courage of both able-bodied and disabled athletes, would mean a great shift in the way we see global sports and a revaluation of the people we look up to and celebrate.
In a now modern world, the Games rely heavily on its generation of money through major corporations and sponsors as well as the influx of tourism – so redefining issues that have seemingly been ‘pushed under the rug’ and drowned by finance and globalisation seems far-fetched. However, with most of the world always listening and the internet as a communicative tool, employing its influence for significant change could make things progress a lot quicker than they have in the past. It’s well past the time for the re-definition of sports and to refocus our intentions towards the unifying effects of ignoring race, sex and appearance – and to just compete.