SBJ/March 11 - 17, 2002/Opinion

Another bid for gold, but TV fades to black

One of the greatest of all international sporting events, the Winter Olympic Games was filled with great performances and wonderful stories. People from all the nations represented have plenty to be proud about.

Although Salt Lake City may be ready to breathe a sigh of relief, the party's not over yet. The United States has another outstanding international sporting event to host and celebrate — the Winter Paralympic Games, which are the "Olympics" for elite athletes with physical disabilities.

The Salt Lake Winter Paralympic Games opened Thursday and will close Saturday, promising to entertain and inspire. About 450 athletes from 35 nations are competing in four sports — alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, biathlon and sledge hockey.

Skiing downhill at 60 mph would be a challenge or possibly even a nightmare to many of us, but consider attempting the giant slalom with one leg. The mere thought of skiing cross country for 15 kilometers wears me out, but covering that distance seated in a small sled using only your arms to propel yourself the entire way is unfathomable. Talk about athleticism!

Never heard of sledge hockey? Well, I suggest you tune in to the Paralympic television coverage on A&E to learn about it and to see these elite athletes in action.

Like me, I'm sure many of you watched the Winter Olympic Games. How many of you recall any mention of the Winter Paralympic Games? While close to half the television viewing audience in Sydney tuned in to the Opening Ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Paralympic Games, that wasn't in the projections here.

Domestic television coverage will be limited to daily highlights presented by A&E — the Arts and Entertainment Network. Twenty-nine of the 35 nations competing will receive the feed from the Games to provide live coverage and highlights. But we are the host nation, and we should pay the Games and the athletes greater homage.

What can be done to increase coverage? Broadcasters likely have argued that they would broadcast the Games, but there is not enough interest. This sounds like the argument that used to be made about women's sports or about other emerging sports such as adventure sports . It has taken time but now we see people do watch women's sports, as evidenced by ESPN's coverage of the NCAA Women's Final Four or DirecTV's WNBA Season Pass package. The highlight of Olympic coverage is often women's figure skating or gymnastics. Adventure sports are popular now, with the X Games and Gravity Games being covered, and new Olympic heroes emerging in sports like snowboarding.

It took time to build viewership for women's sports and adventure sports, and it will take time to build viewership for the Paralympics.

What can be done to enhance coverage of the Paralympic Games? The media need training and education in Paralympic sport. Perhaps Paralympic sport educators should work with the media prior to the Games as well as throughout the Games. Perhaps the Games Organizing Committee could arrange this. Possibly the Organizing Committee could strongly encourage the media covering the Olympic Games to also cover the Paralympic Games.

And there is an audience. The U.S. census counts more than 50 million Americans with disabilities.

The Paralympic Games has secured major corporate sponsors including Eastman Kodak, Visa, AT&T, Gateway, Home Depot and Coca-Cola. A growth in corporate sponsorship will allow media to understand that this is a significant sporting event not to be overlooked.

You are probably still wondering about sledge hockey. I think it's what wheelchair rugby players do in the winter months. In Sydney, the wheelchair rugby venue was packed, with matches being played in a sold-out arena. Never heard of wheelchair rugby either? That's the point. Tune in to A&E and watch the USA "Go for the Gold" one more time!

Mary A. Hums is a research fellow with the Disability Sport Research Institute at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

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ESPN, Olympics, Opinion, WNBA

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