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Disability and Spain’s low-key Paralympics

What does a lack of coverage of the Games say about Spain's attitude to those with disabilities?


The London 2012 Paralympics

Have the 2012 Paralympics done anything to change attitudes to disability in Spain?

On September 9, London bid a fond farewell to this year’s Paralympic Games. A fact which, if you live in Spain, may well have escaped your notice. As fireworks exploded over the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, the closing ceremony of this major international sporting event was not covered by any of Spain’s major TV stations.

In a departure from previous years the 2012 Games did, however, receive comprehensive coverage on Teledeportes (although Spain’s national sports channel, aimed at broadcasting news across the country, changed frequency in June 2011, and I doubt ours is the only household which still does not receive it.)

A quick search for Paralympic news in the national and local papers the morning after was also somewhat underwhelming. Though granted, it was broadly covered by a large section of the written press, it was generally a narrow column wedged between larger features about the Spanish Vuelta, Formula 1 and even the US Open, despite the absence of national tennis star Rafa Nadal.

After talking to various organisations about this, including the Spanish Federation for Athletes with Disabilities, the FEDDF, the ONCE (a charity that raises money for the blind through the sale of lottery tickets) and Gureak (a Basque foundation dedicated to finding employment for people with physical and learning disabilities) I found the general view to be that this year’s national coverage of the Paralympics was nevertheless a vast improvement on previous years.

The ONCE’s José Pedro Gonzalez Alacón, speaking on a personal level, said he was upbeat about the level of national TV and press coverage given to the 2012 Paralympics. When I asked him about the positive repercussions for disabled people as a result of the event, however, he remained philosophical about what can be achieved after one Games. “The Paralympics can influence” society’s perception of disabled people, he said. But these kinds of social changes are, he believes, “very slow”.

A lack of interest

Most blind people employed by the ONCE sell lottery tickets in kiosks dotted all over Spain, which Alacón (himself visually impaired) believes affords them a more public profile within society: “people see them ‘on the street’, instead of being hidden away as they tend to be in many other European countries.” When I asked him whether disabled people had the same opportunities as the able-bodied in any other kind of job, he was similarly pragmatic about the kind of equality that can be expected on a national level, at least for the time being: “One must not to be too utopian.”

However extensive the levels of press interest in this year’s Paralympic Games, it stills begs the question as to whether anyone was really watching and, consequently, to what extent competing athletes and Games organisers have been able to achieve their objective: that of bringing disabled sports into the mainstream.

If organisations like the ONCE give blind people a public profile, aren’t the Paralympics an even better opportunity for gaining positive publicity for people with an array of disabilities that is not just limited to one activity?

On Monday, CNN’s on-line Spanish version included a feature (translated from English) by British journalist Dave Gilbert, in which he posed a similar question regarding the lack of US coverage of the Games: Paralympics Brilliant, but why weren’t you watching?

Seeing British gold medallist Johnnie Peacock compete in the men’s T44 category 100m, says Gilbert, was “the moment I realized for the first time that I was watching the contest not through a prism of disability but as a genuinely exciting sporting event that had me riveted to the edge of my seat.” Gilbert describes this as a ‘revelation’: the fact that he could watch an event like the Paralympics and be focused, not on the disabilities or even the stories of courage and determination, but on the actual sport.

“A long way to go…”

FEDDF Technical Director, Miguel Angel García, was decisive in his view that the Paralympic Games are “…a path of struggle and recognition for the rights of people with disabilities in our society.” He is also positive about improvements in the Spanish media’s reporting of the 2012 Games compared with other years, but feels there is still “a long way to go” in terms of the kind of coverage they receive in the press.

As Gilbert discovered, Paralympic events are no less addictive than standard Olympic sports. Sometimes even more so, given the seemingly insurmountable odds which so many of the athletes overcome in order to win medals.

When Team GB’s 15-year-old Josef Craig won gold in the men’s 400m (S7 category) freestyle race, I’ll wager I wasn’t the only one with my eye on silver medallist Pan Shiyun from China. With just one arm he won a total of two golds and two silvers for his national team in this year’s S7 swimming events. And how his countryman Zheng Tao won the 100m backstroke and broke the World Record with no arms at all is doubtless a mystery to many of us.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this sort of worthy admiration, even if it is not what athletes or Paralympic organisers seek. Despite huge advances on previous years, there is still a tendency within the national press, as Miguel Angel García observes, to “seek out the non-sporting aspect of the event and of each of the athletes.” As a case in point, the rather patronising headline in Monday’s ABC read Disminuidos físicos, gigantes de espíritu (Physically diminished, giants of spirit).

If in Spain so many failed to watch the Paralympics, it may have been down to a lack of coverage, but this is hardly the whole story. The same case applied for the standard Olympics, which also inspired a somewhat lukewarm interest nationally.

Perhaps it is just a sad fact that in Spain, sports that do not display acts of brute force and sheer masculinity, those that do not remind the world of the country’s physical might despite its economic weakness, simply do not appeal to the national psyche right now.

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Published: Sep 13 2012
Category: Sports, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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1 Comment for “Disability and Spain’s low-key Paralympics”

  1. After reading your article, I just have to strongly disagree. I think you’re absolutely biased and your over-generalizations about Spain(iards), Spanish media coverages and specially your last paragraph depicts a non-realistic image of Spain, its regions and its peoples probably due to your ignorance. I’m not going to say that everything’s perfect in Spain, that would be totally unrealistic and absurd, however, articles like yours just help clichés stcik further into the collective international conscience. If I were you, I would feel ashamed to write what you wrote in this article and still live in the country you so much critisize.

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