Are the Paralympics a celebration of superhumans, or a modern freakshow?

Check out this commercial put together by Paralympic organizers who are trying very hard to cast the Games and its athletes in a completely new light. Rather than framing Paralympians as being somehow deficient or inadequate, they're now being portrayed as elite athletes endowed with superhuman capacities.

At the same time, however, there are some groups who are taking exception to this approach, complaining that Paralympians are being exploited in what has become nothing more than a modern freakshow.


The Paralympics officially got underway yesterday following a spectacular opening ceremonies which featured the world's "most famous disabled person," Stephen Hawking. And if the opening to these Games are to be of any indication, the Paralympics ain't what they used to be.

Alternative sports

Indeed, organizers have good reason to think that spectators will be "amazed by the superhumans" of the Paralympics. The Games have come a long way since their humble beginnings when they were called "Hospital Games", a place for injured World War II veterans to compete and engage in meaningful activities.

Today, the individual sports that make up the Games are now as specialized and competitive as the athletes themselves. Paralympians are truly becoming elite athletes, with many of them devoting their lives to training, with some receiving funding and sponsorships. For many observers, the Paralympics are no longer a "special" version of the Olympics, but rather a completely legitimate sporting event starring athletes who use prosthetics and other assistive devices to push the limits of what's humanly possible.


And indeed, as Oscar Pistorius has shown, Paralympians are starting to cross the increasingly hazy line that distinguishes "normal" athletes from so-called "disabled" athletes. As of today (August 30, 2012), Pistorius has become the first person to compete at both the Olympics and Paralympics — a remarkable achievement that will surely be noted in the history books.

And it's difficult to know what the future will hold for Pisorius and similar athletes. Given the rate of technological advance, it's quite conceivable that Paralympians will start to perform at levels even better than normal functioning athletes.


A freak factor?

But not everyone agrees.

According to Danielle Peers, a former Paralympian bronze medallist and women's wheelchair basketball world champion, the Games are nothing more than an offshoot of the freak shows of the 19th Century. As a result, Peers argues that the Paralympics are a "spectacle of curiosity" that is continually reinforcing notions of disability.


Writing in the August 2012 edition of the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Peers made the case that Paralympic organizers have failed to to take full advantage of the opportunity that the Games are presenting. She feels that they're promoting the idea that disability is a tragic problem in people's bodies, rather than a structural problem in today's society.


Peers also believes that at the Paralympics, disabilities and impairments are foregrounded more than athletic skill.

"If you look at books about the Paralympics, they have all these pictures of athletes and don't name any of them," Peers stated through a release, claiming that the information is all about organizers. "You can't imagine that existing in the Olympic context, but in the context of the histories they tell about the Paralympics, it's irrelevant who athletes are."


Moving forward, Peers is hoping to see a decline in organizational paternalism, and greater participation for athletes to guide the direction of the Games itself. "It's only through writing and thinking critically that we have a hope of making changes for the better," she said.


Given the recent hyperbolic campaign by Paralympic organizers to promote their athletes as being virtually superhuman, it's clear that changes are coming. Whether or not the Paralympics are any more or less exploitative than the Olympics remains an open question — as does the issue of the Games itself being a kind of modern freak show for the masses.

All this being said, it's clear that Paralympians are dramatically changing the way we view disability — increasingly, these athletes are superhumans, rather than "disabled people."


Images: Here, here, here.

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