Patients, Athletes, Freaks?

Photo by bplanet

Athlete overcomes her female genitalia to compete in women’s marathon!” This headline was noticeably absent from London 2012 Olympic coverage. This is not to downplay the unequal, and often patronizing, media coverage of female athletes, and the rather violent coverage of trans and other gender-policed athletes, but rather to point to how ridiculous and problematic our most common Paralympic headlines are. Just Google “Paralympian” and you will find a plethora of stories that describe how a Paralympian heroically overcomes their tragic, freak-like disabled body in order to inspirationally compete in disability sport.

If one replaces the disability, in these stories, with gender a number of problems might become apparent. The first problem is one of logic. Athletes do not “overcome” their disability diagnoses (or gender assignment) to compete in Paralympic (or gendered) sport, rather it is precisely these categorical markers that grant athletes access to their respective segregated competitions.

Second, such narratives divert attention from athletic accomplishments, and focus instead on freak-show-like hyperbolic and sensationalized stories of “Super Athletes[1]” or “Super Humans” overcoming their (presumed) tragic, lesser, bodies. In celebrating these athletes in such hyperbolic body-focused ways, we reproduce the idea that disabled bodies are tragic, lesser and generally incapable – why else would their mere participation be so much more “amazing!” than able-bodied sport participation?

Third, such stories presume that the most significant struggles facing these athletes are problems of their own bodies, rather than social structures that render them much more susceptible to poverty, sexual and physical violence, and social exclusion and marginalization (within sport and many other social settings). In focusing on bodily difference, and by extension effacing social disablement, such stories are part of the social forces that disable.

To put it bluntly, typical heroic Paralympian stories suck. Of course, I am not the first person to point this out. You would be hard-pressed to find an athlete or disability scholar who wouldn’t mount at least one of the above critiques, if asked. There are a number of published articles, in fact, that argue about how the media misrepresents or misconstrues the empowering Paralympic movement and its athletes. It is precisely this point, however, that marks my divergence from most cultural critiques. The ‘empowering’ Paralympic movement, I argue, is not simply a victim of freak-show-like media representations. Paralympic sport organizations and leaders have often colluded with a whole host of representations and practices that serve to disempower athletes, including practices derived from freak shows (see Super Athlete example above).

In a recent genealogical, study, I demonstrated how Paralympic sport leaders and organizations have always been strongly influenced by institutionalized sport, medical rehabilitation, and the sensationalized freak shows. All three of these influences have been useful for the Paralympic Movement. Sport structures have offered access to funding, to training technologies, and to a certain degree of credibility. Ties to rehabilitation have provided justifications for charitable funding, the often-coerced recruitment of early participants, and the air of benevolence and expertise that accompany ‘helping’ those with seemingly-broken bodies. Freak show influences have provided sensationalist representational strategies around disability that maximize able-bodied interest and thus fundraising potential: strategies that have functioned as much for early rehabilitation centers, as for current disability sport organizations.

Importantly, however, sport, rehabilitation, and freak shows each also have their dangers. There are entire academic fields devoted to critical engagement with the ways that institutionalize sport often disciplines athletes in unethical ways, and how it reproduces and justifies social inequalities. Similarly, there are academic fields that critique rehabilitation, and other medically-based approaches to disability, for their contribution to disabling and unequal power dynamics that enable experts to speak for, and act upon the bodies of, non-consenting ‘patients’. Lastly, there is significant literature on racist and ableist depictions and practices of the 19th Century freak shows, and how these shows (and often their ‘stars’) were taken over by travelling medical shows, which incorporated similar practices to coerce and display their collections of medical anomalies, for their own profit.

Interestingly, these three well-developed critiques of sport, rehabilitation and medicalized freak shows are rarely applied to the Paralympic Movement and its practices. I argue that this is because the dominant myths of inherently tragic disability and benevolently empowering Paralympism leave little room for the critiques and concerns of athletes, activists or academics: such basic concerns as the silencing of athlete dissent, and the lack of athlete input over their own sports and over the ways that they are represented by their sporting organizations.

If we truly desire a more empowering Paralympic Movement, we must start with a critical engagement with those aspects of contemporary and historical Paralympic Movements that disempower. We must point this critique not only at problematic media depictions, but also at the problematic depictions and practices of Paralympic sport organizations themselves. It is only through cultures of critical engagement and reflection that new kinds of headlines might emerge. Here’s one worth hoping for: “Athletes overcome ‘empowering’ Paralympism, and revel in new athletic and political possibilities.”


[1] See, for example, http://www.paralympic.ca/en/Super-Athletes/Super-Athletes.html

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