The invisible superhuman: who’s to blame for Paralympic erasure?
Noa Zulman sheds light on Sydney University’s unsung sporting heroes.
Tucked away from sight, in a small seminar room rented by the University, a young woman addresses a captive audience of academics. A thrice Paralympic medallist, Sarah Stewart is one of the world’s best wheelchair basketballers. But it is not Sarah’s achievements that strike one as extraordinary in the seminar room. It’s the rows of half-empty seats. Disability Inclusion Week, a festival held from the September 5-9, and touted as fostering inclusion and respect of people with disabilities on campus, once again fails to attract attention. Amidst Honi and SRC elections, issues of accessibility and stigma go unaddressed; a talented woman, largely unrecognised.
Last week, 4,342 athletes from 159 countries paraded through Maracanã Stadium in Rio for the closing ceremony of the Summer Paralympics.
Six of those athletes were students from Sydney University.
The Paralympics have always served as a sort of sideshow to their able-bodied counterpart. Despite being the premier international sporting tournament for athletes with disabilities, the Games struggle with issues of under-attendance, fiscal mismanagement and poor publicity. By mid-August of this year, the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) had reportedly only reached 12 per cent of its target 3.3 million ticket sales. Combined with ruthless media scrutiny over Russian doping scandals and poor infrastructure, the Rio Paralympics faced a crisis of credibility.
When compared to Rio, Australia’s reputation is nothing short of stellar. The Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) benefits from widespread corporate and governmental endorsement, allowing them to send 177 athletes to Rio. Competing in everything from archery to wheelchair rugby, Australian para-athletes consistently break world records; an achievement reflected in the 81 medals won by our country in the Games this year.
Sydney University has closer ties to success in Rio than one may think. Of the 177 athletes to represent Australia at the Paralympics, six were Sydney University students, two of whom, Prue Watt and Angela Ballard, are SUSF Elite Athlete Program alumna. Yet, aside from a few articles published through the University’s oft-ignored official marketing material, the achievements of these exceptional athletes has gone vastly unacknowledged.
This erasure of Paralympic effort is endorsed on a macro-scale, with the coverage of the Summer Paralympics broadcast only through Channel 7 in Australia. When examined against mass commercial endorsement of the Olympics, one could argue that media corporations driven by profit and high viewership have little incentive to promote the Paralympics.
In her interview with the University, Sarah Stewart points to societal conceptions of disability as a barrier to better media representation. “I think some of it is just a general shift in attitudes of inclusiveness,” she said. “Thinking about the Olympics and the Paralympics together as ‘the Games’… about those achievements together.”
It is certainly true that social understandings of disability in the 21st century are sorely lacking in nuance. Yet in a generation obsessed with inspiration porn, it would be ignorant of me to dismiss the deep-seated structural disadvantages that athletes with disabilities face as simply products of bad ‘diversity discourse.’ From the financial burden of physiotherapy and prosthetics to complex medical requirements and adjustments, often it is only the most privileged of disabled people that can afford to enter the sporting arena in the first instance.
When I chatted to Rae Anderson, a 19-year-old Paralympic javelin thrower and first year arts student at USyd, she expressed the ever-present fear for athletes with disabilities. “There’s no money in it,” she explained when I questioned why she had chosen to go to university, when she was such a talented sportsperson. “You have to have an income to be able to train and live.”
Indeed, it appears that many choose to opt out of the sporting arena in order to pursue tertiary education or secure employment in a job environment hostile toward people with physical disabilities. For those who do choose to straddle university and elite para-athletics, the books are often forced to take a backseat. When I asked Rae which subjects she was taking this semester, her admittance to dropping three units of study in order to cope with her cerebral palsy rang eerily close to home. “It’s so annoying… I fatigue so much,” she bemoaned over Facebook Messenger, causing me to smile at the familiarity of the sentiment. In order to truly succeed on a Paralympic level, it seems that sport must trump school.
Sarah Stewart is the exception to that rule. Stewart graduated from UNSW with a double degree in English, philosophy and cognitive science, and went on to represent Australia in wheelchair basketball at three consecutive Paralympic Games. Enjoying resounding sporting success, she has since undertaken a PhD in philosophy and remains a passionate advocate for veganism. Sarah’s stubborn refusal to acquiesce to the norm is practically unheard of.
On a Wednesday afternoon, amidst the noise and heat of Hermann’s, a panel of Honi editor hopefuls entertain a crowd of rambunctious students with banter and snide snubs of each other. I stand at the back of the bar, listening sceptically as each ticket asserts their ability to ‘revitalise’ the paper. “Right now,” one student claims, “We have a team of boys playing cricket in Sri Lanka, but no one hears about that because Honi doesn’t report on it.” The rest of the room erupts in peals of laughter, but I stand rooted to the spot; cheeks blushing red, eyes welling with tears.
I am reminded of Sarah, seated before a half- empty room, the medals hanging heavy around her neck.
When asked by the University to offer a last insight into living with a disability, Sarah replies, “disability doesn’t discriminate, it just turns up.”
As a hater of all things that require physical exertion, I am somewhat agnostic to the value of sports reporting in Honi. But of one thing, I am fairly certain. If our disabilities don’t discriminate in whom they target, then neither should our media.