SBJ/September 3-9, 2012/Opinion

Keep focus on athleticism of Paralympians

Viewers of the 2012 Olympics likely saw coverage of Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee track athlete, nicknamed “The Blade Runner,” from South Africa.

Pistorius ran a season best in his first qualifying run of the 400 meters, placing him in a semifinal where he finished last in his heat. Interestingly, much of the coverage of Pistorius did not focus on his athleticism, his times or the fact that even if he ran his personal best, he still was not likely to make the final in his signature event. No mention was made of Pistorius’ accolades or the fact that he had recently lost to American Paralympian Jerome Singleton.

The coverage focused almost exclusively on Pistorius as an inspiration.

As Paralympic promoters push to gain a foothold in the public market, the issue of marketing athletes as inspirations is a point of contention. Some promoters of disability sport are of the philosophy that any coverage is good coverage, while others reject coverage that involves the use of the inspirational story because it may hurt product image.

Inspirational stories sell. Case in point: Wounded Warrior basketball games received coverage on ESPN’s website. Meanwhile, this year’s National Wheelchair Basketball Championships could be viewed only via live streaming online on independent outlets. The level of competition was much higher in the National Wheelchair Basketball Championships than the Wounded Warrior competition, but the Wounded Warriors received significantly more coverage because of the athletes’ service to their country. Players from the National Wheelchair Basketball Association include athletes who had congenital disabilities as well as athletes who were injured in a variety of ways.

This issue of covering the story more than the athletics is, of course, not unique to athletes with disabilities. The historical sexual objectification of female athletes, the focus on the financial standing of the families of elite gymnasts at this year’s Olympics, and the attention paid to potential conflict on the women’s soccer team are just a few examples.

However, covering the story more than the athletics promotes unique preconceived notions about disability and may affect athletes negatively. Because of this, promoters of disability sports have to decide how to most effectively address this challenge as NBC increases its TV programming and website coverage of the Paralympics.

Dan James, coach of the U.S. wheelchair tennis team and the U.S. Tennis Association’s national manager of wheelchair tennis, notes that the best strategy is to not ignore the inspirational stories because these stories can position them more effectively. Specifically, James states, “It is part of our product, it’s inherent, it can’t be removed. … It’s important, but it’s secondary. The athletic accomplishments must come first.”

Although James advocates for some focus on the inspirational stories, he believes that athleticism must be the primary focus. He points out the detrimental consequences of placing too much emphasis on the story. “Short term, it’s effective, but long term it’s simply not. If you market the inspiration first then people don’t remember the name or the results, just the disability. It’s neat but it doesn’t move the needle.”

In the coming years, disability sport promoters will be forced to make difficult strategic decisions involving the promotion of athletes based on their athleticism and their inspirational stories.

These decisions will have serious consequences regarding how these athletes are perceived by the general public.

Like all sports promotion professionals, disability sports executives will need to balance selling tickets today with changing perspectives for tomorrow. An imbalanced approach could cause these athletes to be viewed sentimentally, and not competitively.

Michael Cottingham (mcotting@central.uh.edu) is an assistant professor of sport and fitness administration at the University of Houston.


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