Narratives of Paralympic Sport: Perspectives from Rio and Beyond
Joshua R. Pate, Ph.D., James Madison University
Editors’ note: This post is the second in a series focused on disability sport and the Paralympic Games. The first post in the series, written by Dr. Laura Misener, was published on January 9, 2017.
I always enjoy and hate asking my undergraduate students this question: “How many of you have seen a Paralympic sport before?” The response—or lack of—is disturbing.
Students in the United States don’t watch the Paralympic Games because, as simple as it may sound, it’s not something on ESPN’s SportsCenter. It’s not covered by mainstream media. It’s not shoved in our faces as Americans. It’s just not present among U.S. media coverage of sport. When it is, it’s in the Lifestyles section of the newspaper or the Features segment on a nightly news program.
I hate it when I ask that question because I know the response. In a class of 38 students, less than five raise their hand.
I love it when I ask that question because I know we’re about to cover a unit in class where learning is nearly guaranteed.
Such was the case this September when the Paralympics were held in Rio. We were guaranteed a record-breaking 66 hours of coverage here in the States to be shown on NBC Sports Network, which is reportedly available in 71% of U.S. households with a television, according to Sports TV Ratings (2016).
Ratings website Sports Media Watch reported that primetime coverage of the Paralympic Games averaged 143,000 viewers, an increase of 175% from the London Paralympic coverage (Paulsen, 2016). The single broadcast that aired on NBC pulled 651,000 viewers for a 0.4 final rating. Granted, the Rio Games received 60.5 more hours of American televised coverage compared to the mere 5.5 hours of coverage from the London Games.
Yes, we have to start somewhere. Yes, 66 hours is better than 5.5 hours of delayed, commentator-dubbed footage. Yes, we anticipate even more coverage in the future if advertisers jump on board (and see what’s in it for them, such as a demographic of brand-loyal consumers that would rival NASCAR fans).
But if we’re talking narratives following the Rio Paralympics, there were none in the U.S.
I had the occasional student tell me they watched an event. I had the occasional colleague or neighbor tell me they saw something the other day on the Special Olympics. And aside from the few of us in the United States studying Paralympic and disability sport, I question the percentage of sport management courses across the U.S. that spent time on the topic at all this September … or October … or November, whether it would’ve been inclusion-related, facilities, general management, governance, etc.
dePauw (1997) referred to the lack of media coverage as “Invisibility of Disability,” where athletes are invisible or excluded from sport altogether. dePauw’s spectrum of disability sport coverage expands to “Visibility of Disability” where athletes are visible but inferior to able-bodied athletes, and finally “(In)Visibility of DisAbility,” where athletes are seen as athletes first and disability is minimized.
In U.S. media coverage, disability sport is invisible. We can draw comparisons to other global sports not covered as prominently in American sports media, such as Premier League soccer. In the technologically-driven age of being able to know the Liverpool-Southampton result instantly, we have no excuse for not knowing how easily the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team breezed through to the gold medal in Rio.
However, we are at a critical time in academia where, as educators, we have the opportunity or perhaps the duty to not just inform students of Paralympic and disability sport but to engage them into a critical discussion of why a global event with more than 4,000 athletes is nowhere on our U.S. sport coverage agenda.
dePauw, K. (1997). The (in)visibility of disability: Cultural contexts and ‘sporting bodies.’ Quest, 49, 416-430.
Paulsen. (2016). More ratings: Paralympics, World Cup of Hockey, WNBA on ESPN. Retrieved from http://www.sportsmediawatch.com/2016/09/paralympics-ratings-nbcsn-world-cup-hockey-espn-viewership-wnba/
Sports TV Ratings. (2016). How many more homes is ESPN in than FS1 and NBC Sports Network? Retrieved from https://sportstvratings.com/how-many-more-homes-is-espn-in-than-fs1-and-nbc-sports-network-june-2016-edition/5087/