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The media and the Paralympics

The attention paid by the media to disability sport has inevitably reflected the invisibility of disabled people more generally in our popular culture. However the awarding of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics to London has the power to bring about a sea change in the United Kingdom. Both the Paralympic movement and the media have a stake in an enhanced public profile: the Paralympic movement needs publicity in order to raise awareness and to attract sponsors; the media recognises that the Paralympics is a fruitful source of copy. What is a precondition of a harmonious partnership, however, is that the media presents disability sport in an informed and unprejudiced way, and that this is reflected globally.

The history of the Paralympics is a comparatively recent one. It has its roots in the post- war work of Sir Ludwig Guttmann; was first staged officially at the 1960 Rome Olympics and has gradually increased in size and significance since then. This belated start has meant, however, that there is a comparative dearth of research on the Paralympics generally.

It is clear from only a cursory examination of media resources like newspapers and broadcasts that the attention paid to the Olympics far outweighs that given to the Paralympics. Some research has been done on this: Otto Schantz and Keith Gilbert (2001) concluded in their examination of French and German newspapers at the time of the Atlanta 1996 Olympics that many newspapers gave space to the coverage of the Paralympics only for image reasons, and cite research undertaken in the 1990s that has shown that the quality and quantity of print media coverage of people with disabilities was "of a low standard".

Ian Brittain, in his summing up of research into the media's portrayal of disability sport, draws attention to the sharp increase in the numbers of accredited media covering the Paralympic Games since the Barcelona Games of 1992 (Brittain 2010), but coverage, though increasing, is clearly not uniform across the world and this poses a problem for the governing body: the International Paralympic Committeee.

In the UK, competition to broadcast the 2012 Paralympics has been fierce, and was won by the broadcaster Channel 4 which has committed itself to a full Paralympics schedule, commencing in August 2010 with an 11-week series about disability sport. Statements by the broadcaster as reported in the Guardian (8-01-10) were also extremely positive with Lord Burns, the Channel 4 chairman designate, quoted as saying that: "For Channel 4, the London Paralympic Games will be the main event, not a sideshow to the Olympics; the Games will define our year in 2012 and take over Channel 4 for their duration".

The Beijing Paralympics attracted a record number of viewers for the event in the United Kingdom. The BBC says that the last 15 minutes of the television coverage were watched by 13.2 million people, 23% of the population. This compares with 10.8 million for the Paralympics in Athens and 12.9 million for the Sydney games. The American broadcaster NBC, on the other hand, did not show the Paralympics live at all.

Some countries, notably in the developing world, have had less chance to see the Paralympics, and an attempt has been made to rectify this situation, and to raise the profile of disabilty sport more generally by the setting up of an Internet based broadcasting station called ParalympicSport TV which will provide full coverage of the Paralympics and which will continue to highlight elite disability sport when the Games are over.

More widespread coverage of disability sport raises the question however, of how this coverage is framed. One of the key themes in media and disability research is to investigate how media coverage can reinforce prejudice and misconceptions about disability. Detailed analysis by a number of researchers cited by Ian Brittain has identified a number of common themes such as the amount of media coverage given to the Olympics as opposed to the Paralympics; the nature of the images used to portray disabled athletes, and the language used in describing them. The tendency of earlier media reporting to emphasise the heroic efforts of Paralympians in overcoming their disabilities, and the patronising implications of portraying the Paralympic Games as intrinsically more noble, honest, and more 'family' centred than its Olympic counterpart have angered Paralympians who wish to be regarded simply as athletes. P. David Howe's view is that the media have "framed Paralympic sport as a (sub) culture, establishing boundaries around it but seldom exploring what makes it culturally distinctive" (Howe, 2008).

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Research articles

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The representation of disabled athletes in the Chinese and UK press during Beijing 2008: A comparison

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