Last week, a month to the day after the Winter Olympics kicked off, the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games was held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This marks the third decade that the Paralympics have directly followed their Olympic counterparts, using the same venues and holding competitions in some of the same events. Despite the elevated profile of Paralympic competitions, those games have not come close to matching the Olympics juggernaut, receiving a fraction of the broadcast coverage and relatively low-key play in the news media. Nevertheless, beyond the obvious displays of human excellence in the face of adversity, the Paralympics have become a significant proving ground for adaptive technologies and are as rife with geopolitical and military connections as their able-bodied counterparts.
The Two World Wars and Shifting Perceptions
I spend a lot of time in this space questioning the potential of sports to "do" things, especially as a soft-power vehicle in the geopolitical arena. One area where sports do have a pretty solid track record is in challenging social assumptions and stereotypes, most notably in terms of race. Similarly, adaptive and accessible sports have been a driver of social acceptance for disabled people for over a century, in part because these sports have been closely linked to wounded war veterans. More generally, beginning with World War I, efforts to rehabilitate and reintegrate disabled veterans completely reconfigured the socio-cultural implications of what it meant to be disabled. Writing in the Journal of Olympic History, Christoph Bertling argues: "The disastrous effects of the World Wars improved the lot of people with mental and physical handicaps. As a result of the world wars, there were greater numbers of physically and mentally injured people, and these people had to be taken care of."
Bertling offers the case of Weimar Germany as an example of shifting norms, where over 2 million disabled men spurred "an important social duty to reintegrate these men into society. This was because their injuries were suffered in a patriotic spirit and as the consequence of service to society." The rehabilitation program for these men included a variety of games and gymnastics in the German physical culture tradition and was a harbinger of what was to come.
Adaptive sports really took off in the wake of World War II, after they were thrust into the public eye by German-born Jewish neurosurgeon Sir Ludwig Guttmann. He was a prominent specialist at the time of the Nazi rise to power and eventually settled in London with the support of the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics. In 1944, the British government put Guttmann in charge of the newly established National Spinal Injuries Centre, in the village of Stoke Mandeville. Much to his credit, Guttmann believed that, along with physical rehabilitation, wounded veterans had much more to gain from adaptive sport programs. In recent decades, studies have confirmed his instinct, showing that physical activity offers a host of mental and cognitive benefits and that delivering physical activity in a goal-oriented sport setting can often heighten these benefits.
On the opening day of the London Olympic Games in 1948, Guttmann staged the first Stoke Mandeville Games, with a 16-person archery competition for disabled veterans. The event became an annual affair and turned international in 1952 with the inclusion of Dutch athletes. Rome played host to the 1960 version of these games, the first to include nonmilitary athletes, and it was retroactively recognized as the first Paralympic Games. While Stoke Mandeville lived on as an annual offering that became the World Wheelchair Games in the 1990s, the Rome games began a tradition of holding a marquee event during Olympic years, paving the way for the Paralympic movement's eventual integration into the Olympic movement proper.
Paralympic Sport Today: Parallel, For Better or Worse
This year's Winter Paralympics, which run through March 18, include adaptive versions of alpine skiing, biathlon, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, ice hockey and curling. A celebration of the accomplishments of impaired athletes from all backgrounds, elite adaptive sports still regularly feature combat-wounded veterans. Given the peak physical condition, training discipline and attitude of members of the military, this isn't much of a surprise. In an unfortunate reality, ongoing global conflicts combined with advances in medical, rehabilitative and prosthetic technology have created a generation of truly exceptional Paralympians. Of course, these advances have helped plenty of nonmilitary athletes overcome congenital challenges or traumatic injuries as well.
Developments in prosthetic science are particularly notable, often allowing for such natural movement and graceful performance, that one wonders if we are in fact watching enhanced athletes rather than "repaired" athletes. Add to this milieu the continued push for the social acceptance of disability, better support for young adaptive athletes, 24-hour televised sports networks and the new media landscape, and one could reasonably say that adaptive sport is "having a moment." Interestingly, given the American hunger for sports programming, coverage of such sports in the United States has historically lagged behind Europe, although NBC has promised to deliver a record number of programming hours for the current Paralympics, albeit little of it on its flagship broadcast network.
With prestige comes cheating, often in ways we are not accustomed to hearing about.
From the earliest days at Stoke Mandeville, proponents of adaptive sport framed performance in terms of ability rather than disability, of what athletes could do, rather than what they could not. At the outset of the 2018 games, the Paralympic movement has succeeded in positioning its sports offerings not as a binary alternative to able-bodied sport, but as another enticing offering in an increasingly diverse sports world. Unfortunately — if not predictably — this has come with some of the issues and baggage we associate with traditional sports. With prestige comes cheating, often in ways we are not accustomed to hearing about. Teams who play in the intellectually disabled sections of the competition have been disqualified for using athletes who feigned their disability. Then there is the practice of "boosting," where athletes attempt to harness the performance gains of artificial spikes in blood pressure. How does one artificially boost blood pressure? Apparently by causing harm to limbs below a spinal injury. The trauma raises blood pressure, but the athlete cannot feel any pain. There are also athletes who use more traditional performance-enhancement measures, such as steroids and other ergogenic aids. In fact, Russian Paralympians in these games were implicated in the same systematic doping scheme as their Olympic counterparts and have been subject to the same penalties imposed on their national team
The Paralympics are also not immune to the political maneuvering that encroaches on able-bodied international sport. Just one month after all the headlines celebrated North and South Korea marching together during the Olympic opening ceremony, a dispute about the unified Korea flag has caused a rift, and the countries did not march together during the Paralympic ceremony. There's an impulse for a romanticized gut reaction here, that these indignities are somehow worse because they undermine the potential of sport for an already underappreciated population. But I think we need to check this impulse and reframe these indignities as a twisted confirmation of the progress made by handicapped athletes and the Paralympic movement.