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The Paralympic Paradox

Where does the word Paralympic come from? Or to rephrase: why do we call it the Paralympics? Let me tell you. In 1960 the first official Paralympics took place in Rome. Such was the perception of disability back then, it was an event designed solely for wheelchair users. Or, largely speaking, paraplegics. This in turn led to the event being called the Paralympics.

It wasn't until the 1988 Seoul Games that the word Paralympic was redefined so that it included the entire disabled sporting community. To that end, the prefix 'para' was seamlessly adjusted to mean 'beside; adjacent to - parallel'. Brilliant. No need to change the branding or domain name. I jest of course. But you have to admit, that must've been a pretty strange marketing meeting:

"So what do we call the Paralympics now that we've all agreed it needs to represent more than just paraplegics?"

"How about...Paralympics!"

"But that's the same word."

"No it isn't."

I was only 8 years old when the transition from Paralympic to Paralympic took place, so I can't tell you what kind of impact this semantic shift had on the world. It wasn't until the 2012 London Paralympics that I took a legitimate interest in the event. This was down to perhaps three main reasons. Firstly, I was now disabled. Secondly, the event took place in my home city. And thirdly, the event was accompanied by a 'Superhuman' ad campaign that thrust the event into the mainstream.

If we were to assess society's view of disability based solely upon the 2012 Paralympics, one would surmise that we hold disabled people in high regard. We would consider that the hyperbolic advertising campaign was a true reflection of the hero-status that Paralympians experience on a daily basis. But we would be wrong. In fact, we would be so far from the truth that we would be fools to believe that disabled people enjoy any kind of status whatsoever.

The reality is that living with disability is a fucking nightmare. This isn't due to the disability itself, but rather the perception of disability from the able-bodied world. Right now, we are in the midst of a socially muddled mindset that swings from inspiration porn to abject pity. You could also throw in a bit of embittered anger into the mix.

The point is, regardless of my subjectivity, the one thing disabled people do not have is parity. And if we return to the revised definition of the word Paralympic and consider what it is intended to signify, you can see that a problem emerges. The notion that an Olympic games for disabled people runs in parallel to an Olympics for able-bodied people is the wool being pulled over your eyes. The Paralympics takes place after the Olympics. The reasons for this may very well be because it is logistically impossible for the host nation to accommodate so many athletes at once. But for me, it's a question of priorities. The same 'priorities' that deem an able-bodied person to be more deserving of a life-saving organ donor than a disabled person. True fact.

Paralympians are athletes. Just like Olympians. They are human beings. Just like Olympians. But, unlike Olympians, when they return home, they are second-class citizens. It's all very well creating a bespoke event for a disabled athlete to compete in. But what happens when that athlete gets stranded at a train station because the lift isn't working? Or can't find a place to urinate because there isn't a disabled toilet? What, then, becomes of the Paralympian? Are they still equal to their Olympic brethren?

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