Beyond patriotism: what the Rio Paralympics really showed us

Earlier this year Great Britain’s Paralympians delivered one of their highest ever medal tallies at the Rio games. The likes of Jonny Peacock, Sarah Storey and Hannah Cockcroft, who were icons of the 2012 games in London, cemented their status as household names. Whilst new stars such as Kadeena Cox - the first British athlete to win golds in two different sports for 28 years - also burst onto the scene.

Such was the extent of British success that Channel 4’s once again excellent coverage of the games struggled to find the broadcasting time to give every medal winner the attention that they deserved. British ‘medalling’ filled so much airtime that little space remained to explore the games from the perspective of other countries.

The results of the Rio Paralympics once again illustrated that progress is being made on a long road towards the achievement of equity for disabled people and attitudes are gradually shifting, in the UK. A glance at the medal table, from a British perspective, could be taken to indicate that our society is tentatively moving in a more inclusive direction.  

But it is the nature of elite sport that where there are winners there must also be losers. An examination of the medal table from a more global perspective paints a very different picture.

Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have a combined population of close to one billion people - around one-seventh of the global total. Yet in the 2016 Paralympics this group of countries won just 19 gold medals, a mere three percent of those that were up for grabs.  Seven of these gold medals were won by South African athletes, six of whom were white. By contrast, Paralympics GB, representing a population of about 60 million, seventeen times smaller than that of Sub-Saharan Africa, returned 64 golds. Australia too, with its population of 24 million, won nearly twice as many medals as all of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa combined.

The Benin team at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony in Rio, composed of just one man - Cosme Akpovi, a competitor in the F57/58 Javelin. Image:  Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil

The Benin team at the Paralympic Opening Ceremony in Rio, composed of just one man - Cosme Akpovi, a competitor in the F57/58 Javelin. Image: Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil

Richer countries continue to dominate Paralympic sport. Countries where there are high levels of poverty struggle to compete. There is a clear relationship between national wealth and sporting attainment. Look no further than the cost of a high-tech racing wheelchair, coming in at several thousand pounds, for a clear example of how an African athlete might be disadvantaged vis-à-vis a European competitor.  

So could we level the playing field by standardising equipment at the games?


The problem goes very much deeper. Disabled young people in African countries are affected by more than just poverty. Negative beliefs and prejudice surrounding disability result in their comprehensive exclusion from society and present huge barriers to their life chances. When only 2% of disabled children across Africa go to school, it is not surprising that very few have yet to find themselves in the position of representing their country at a Paralympic Games. 

Despite richer countries generally outperforming poorer countries at the Paralympics, the medal table shows us that much more than just money determines a country’s success. The USA, the world’s largest economy and the dominant force in this year’s Olympics, can be found in a somewhat disappointing fourth place in the Paralympic table. Above the USA sits Ukraine, with a remarkable 41 golds, despite ranking below the global average for economic output per person (GDP). Meanwhile, Japan, an indisputably rich country renowned for its technological development, finished 64th on the medal table, failing to win a single gold this year.

Ananias Shikongo, and his guide runner Even Tjiviju, winner of gold in the Men's 200m T11 (and two other bronze medals) for Namibia in Rio. Image:  Vision2030

Ananias Shikongo, and his guide runner Even Tjiviju, winner of gold in the Men's 200m T11 (and two other bronze medals) for Namibia in Rio. Image: Vision2030

The reasons that disabled people are so disadvantaged in developing countries are complex; they cannot be simply attributed to a lack of resources. Poverty, stigma and disability, each one both a cause and consequence the others, present a vicious cycle. That’s why Disability Africa not only supports local people in Africa to deliver services for disabled children, but also to challenge the negative attitudes which result in disabled children being isolated, neglected and left behind.

Sport, done for enjoyment, is incredibly powerful. Sport has the potential to deliver key benefits to children and young people who take part. Sport helps develop both physical coordination and methods of communication. Through sport, friendships are made and social skills are enhanced. Sport allows young people to express themselves differently, to be seen in a different light. Sport encourages onlookers to change their views of its participants. Sport can directly help the people involved in it but also change the attitudes of those who watch it or are even just aware of it.

Sport is play, just by another name. A context where play is organised and loosely structured. So now re-read the last paragraph and replace the word ‘sport’ with ‘play’ (or even ‘playscheme’).

Get it?

This is why we start our projects in Africa with simple, inexpensive, playschemes for disabled young people and their non-disabled siblings and peers. Play has the power to deliver tangible benefits for disabled children in their health, coordination, mobility, communication, social skills, self-esteem; particularly as compared to being locked up all day in a dark room at home whilst their parents go out to work (to name but one example of a situation a child with learning difficulties might experience). Play can also make progress that is harder to measure, but equally as important. It can begin to change others’ prejudicial and destructive views, allowing disabled people to be accepted, appreciated and included as valid and valued members of society. Play can start to create genuinely inclusive communities where no vulnerable person’s life chances will be compromised by what others think of them.

So as we reflect on an incredible year for British Paralympic sport through a lens of achievement and progress, we’d do well to also consider what the Paralympics continues to tell us about the dreadful social injustice that the 80% of disabled people who live in the world’s developing countries continue to face. The balance of para-sport attainment in the world shows us the huge and complicated problem of poverty, attitude and disability intertwining. But that’s not the end. Sport and, more generally, play must also be seen as a key part of the solution – they have the power to begin developing inclusive communities with a relatively small amount of resources. This is what we are demonstrating in communities in Africa.