“Meet the Superhumans”: have the Paralympic Games lived up to their name?

You may be familiar with the ancient Greek origin story of the Olympic Games. But the Paralympic Games, held every four years in the same city as the former, were the twentieth-century brainchild of neurologist Dr Ludwig Guttman (1899-1980), who was involved with the rehabilitation of World War II veterans and injured civilians in the English village of Stoke Mandeville. He set up recreational (and eventually competitive) sports programmes for his patients that evolved into the first-ever Paralympic Games in the summer of 1960 in Rome, where athletes with spinal cord injuries from 23 countries competed in archery, athletics, dartchery (a combination of darts and archery!), snooker, swimming, table tennis, wheelchair fencing, and wheelchair basketball.

Today, athletes with a variety of physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities (shown below) from more than 150 countries compete at the Games and its associated sport-specific championships.

Some, like those featured in that original Channel 4 ad, have become household names and received royal honours. But these individuals represent the smallest subset of athletes. How about the rest? And how far away is the Paralympic movement from achieving the parity for which it has always striven?

This series of data visualisations aims to give a general picture of trends in the Olympic and Paralympic movements that I (only a lay sports fan) believe are relevant to an equality lens. Tell me what I’ve glossed over, and I’ll be sure to learn from my mistakes!

1. How many are competing?

The historic first Paralympics in Rome hosted 400 athletes. The 1960 Olympics, already the 17th edition of those games, saw more than 5,000 competitors. Has this gap closed over time?

Flags of host countries for each Olympic and Paralympic Games are displayed atop each data point. A few games were not held in the same country.

Quite the opposite. Rio 2016 featured nearly triple the amount of able-bodied competitors as disabled ones, and you may have noticed that the number of Paralympic athletes at the most recent games is still lower than the number of Olympic athletes in Rome. The good news: both figures are on the rise.

2. How many events are featured?

You may try to justify the previous data by the number of disciplines athletes were able to contest. Maybe the Paralympics, given their more recent development, have had fewer events over the years (I refer to an “event” as a medal-winning opportunity such as the 100-meter dash). I plotted these figures over time to test this explanation.

It looks like this reasoning fails from the fourth Games onward. In the first few editions, Paralympics organisers set events for a limited athlete base as the disability sport movement evolved. Then, the rate at which new events were introduced skyrocketed, with the highest number of events to date (733) seen in Seoul 1988. The Olympics, meanwhile, maintained a gradual increase in events, mainly motivated by the introduction of new sports (i.e. golf and rugby in Rio 2016).

Para-sports have been introduced for nearly all conventional Olympic sports, such as athletics, swimming, judo, table tennis, and triathlon. The only two sports present in the Paralympic Games never seen in Olympic competition include boccia (a.k.a. bowls or pétanque), a game based on accuracy and precision for athletes with motor impairments, and goalball, a team discipline for athletes with visual impairments that involves throwing a noise-producing ball into a net.

2.i. The 100-meter dash

Moreover, what would be considered one event in Olympic competition may become a dozen in para-sport. Using the 100-meter dash as an example again, I have plotted world record times for each “classification”, or impairment category, for men and women as of April 2021. Note that Usain Bolt’s world record time for this event is 9.58 seconds.

A 100-meter race in athletics would have been contested by 18 different classes of athletes in 2016. Some (classes T51–54) would have raced seated in specialised upper-body-operated wheelchairs, while others (classes T32–47) would have raced standing from a variety of starting positions. Still others (classes T11–13) would have raced standing and may have employed a sighted guide to help them navigate the track. In each group of classes, a lower “T” number (“T” for track) indicates a higher degree of impairment. For example, a T11 athlete would be more likely to require a guide than a T13 one.

Returning to the topic at hand, these factors combined explain the high number of events seen in recent editions of the Paralympic Games and refute the idea that fewer athletes compete because of limited opportunities in each discipline.

3. Who gets funded?

We can tell by the times displayed above that Paralympic competitors are elite performers, achieving race results that few individuals on the planet can. But do they receive the funding that able-bodied athletes do?

For one narrow perspective on this question, I used data from the UK Sport website to compare total British funding figures for sports contested in both Olympic and Paralympic arenas in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020 (now 2021).

Here are the results:

The overall pattern is clear, but there are some caveats. Para-archery and badminton (the latter of which has not yet been contested at the Paralympic Games, having been originally programmed for Tokyo 2020) are better funded than their Olympic counterparts. Competition statistics show that the UK’s Olympic archers only won two gold medals during more than 100 years of competition (1900–2016), but that their Paralympic archers have won 17 golds and plenty more minor medals in the 56 years when the sport has been contested. The direction of the relationship between funding and athlete success is not obvious in this case, but the rationale for investing in para-archery is clear.

We can also look at cycling, a sport in which Great Britain has succeeded across the board. The country comes in third in the all-time Olympic medal table, with 24 golds, but comes in first in the all-time Paralympic medal rankings with a total of 41 golds. As opposed to archery, this has not translated to funding; Olympic athletes still receive almost four times the amount that their Paralympic counterparts do.

Someone with more financial expertise may be able to explain why.

Perhaps even more interesting than the sports included in this barplot are those that were not. Para-table tennis received £3,639,593 of funding in the past year and Olympic table tennis received none, likely because UK able-bodied athletes did not qualify for Tokyo. The sport’s Paralympic component, however, is alive and well in the British isles because of stars like Will Bailey, who secured a men’s singles gold in Rio 2016, and the experienced David Wetherwill, who scored this legendary shot in London 2012:

Table tennis is one of the few sports that I both watch and play (badly), so this got me especially excited.

Wrapping up

This extended examination of the available evidence on Olympic and Paralympic athlete and event numbers and funding has likely bored you snoring already. To make up for your time, I will keep this closing ceremony brief.

I believe it is clear that Paralympic athletes as a whole receive less support than their able-bodied peers at the national and international level, though individual exceptions to this trend are likely found in all sports. This occurs in the case of Great Britain despite disabled athletes’ overwhelming success in competition.

The Paralympic system is flawed. By nature, it segregates athletes with and without the requisite impairments despite the meaning of its name (“para” = alongside + “Olympic”). Its classifications, which I noticed had changed since I was last engrossed in the para-athletics scene before the pandemic, will never be perfectly accurate and are constantly up for debate. They subtly reinforce the medical model of disability, which proposes that barriers that disabled people face are solely due to their physical/sensory/intellectual/etc. impairment.

The social model of disability, on the other hand, which motivates my use of the term “disabled person”, proposes that these barriers result from society’s failure to adapt to the needs of the individual with the impairment. Of course, it would be impossible to classify athletes based on the social limitations placed on them, so this is a criticism without a realistic solution. However, with the ever-changing pace of the Paralympic movement, these conversations are surely necessary.

Let me tell you this (and in doing so, fail to keep this conclusion short): I do not join in the excitement of the Paralympic Games to be “inspired” by the “superhumans” that they feature. Any athlete who has reached the level of competition seen at these events is extraordinary. They probably consume more protein in one day than we would in several and regularly sacrifice enjoyment and relaxation for small increments of progress in the pool or on the court. This version of competition just has more events to watch, more world records to tackle, and more opportunities to cheer on the underdogs who have a real chance of defeating the seasoned medallists. Besides, as we strive for media and TV landscapes that look more like the diverse world of the twenty-first century, why can’t we bring that world to sport?

The most important caveat to this article is my non-disabledness, which likely renders me mistaken or incoherent about many of the topics I have covered today. If you are curious about the intersection between disability studies and sports, I would suggest consulting learned scholars and individuals with lived experience. I am but an interested observer and a persevering ally at best.

Thank you for reading.

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Data visualisation made with R’s ggplot2 package.

Data and content sources:

Olympics official website

Paralympics official website

UK Sport website

Raw data used for this analysis is available — please get in touch!

My name is Yaning (亚凝), I am studying Population Health Sciences in London, and this is my first Medium post (I didn’t intend it to be so serious). My academic interests lie in health equity, disability justice, and data visualisation, though I’ve recently focused on healthcare worker safety during COVID-19. I live with a worn piano and guitar, two friendly stuffed animals, and one vase of vibrant, crumbling flowers.

I am currently working on transferring my visualisations to this platform. In the meantime, the rest of them can be found here: https://www.instagram.com/thestudyofempathy/

I owe a big thank you to my dear friend Divya, who is just as likely as me to publish things at 4 am, for suggesting this new platform for my work. Fans of The Office and the Sherlock Holmes series will delight at her creative presentation of show insights here.

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she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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Yaning Wu

Yaning Wu

she/her. Population Health student @ UCL. Perpetual dataviz nerd. Published on Towards Data Science and UX Collective.

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