There are many things which distinguish the Commonwealth Games from other sporting mega-events, and one of them is the way that disabled and non-disabled events are integrated into the same tournament. This is not to say it’s a level playing field of course. Non-disabled athletes invariably attract a greater degree of celebrity status, are more familiar household names, and appear in non-sporting media in a way which is rarely the case for their disabled counterparts.
Received wisdom states that this is partly due to a problem of translation. Parasports may not be immediately familiar to their audience, and the process of classifying athletes whose impairments are not immediately evident or comparable requires definition and explanation for the audience. For many years the absence of disabled sports coverage (and consequent lack of knowledge of elite disabled athletes) has thus been rationalized by the argument that defining these terms effects the immediate interest of the audience, who become bored and switch over or off.
However the success of Channel 4’s coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games – which beat the BBC’s Olympic offerings to win the BAFTA award for best sporting broadcast - seemed to challenge this rhetoric. In presenting the Paralympians as Superhumans waiting in the wings while the warm-up act of the Olympics ran its course, Channel 4 seemingly subverted the popular notion that the Olympics was ‘the real thing’ and began to pave the way for greater interest in parasport. In addition the broadcaster’s use of Lexi - an on-screen computer graphic - to explain how athletes were classified, made the process of identifying ability seem effortless.
Lexi’s authoritative voiceover and simple graphic assured its audience, ‘although the athletes look completely different the system ensures the race is fair’. Job done, and Channel 4 continue to cover elite disabled and non-disabled events in the athletics Diamond League series on a regular basis.
Channel 4’s Superhumans coverage is not without its problems – this is a convincing, enduring and sexy bit of TV advertising which seemingly demands a confrontation with well-worn tropes about the body beautiful - but in many ways it is also very conventional; here’s another load of sexed-up, glossy action pictures fronted by white, conventionally attractive men with buffed muscles. Parasport challenges this masculine hegemony in several ways.
By its nature it is often collaborative, requiring more in the way of teamwork, often from disabled and non-disabled participants working together.
As Gilbert & Schantz (2008) have argued, the norms, rules and structures of competitive sport intrinsically favour the non-disabled, and by copying these selection processes the Paralympic movement creates athletes whose achievements are exceptional as curiosities rather than because they have pushed the limits of the human body.
Although the Paralympics is aligned to the Olympics in many ways it is also crucially unhinged from it by institutions and practices, with its own opening and closing ceremony, different broadcast conventions, governing bodies and events. But the Commonwealth Games features disabled and non-disabled events in one event.
Does this create an equal footing or does the discourse of sport suggest inequality from the outset? Either way, how will the BBC rise to the challenge that this ‘level playing field’ presents? Let the Games begin...