Why is no one watching disabled sports?

Why is no one watching disabled sports?

This past week the Athletics World Championships has been everywhere. You couldn’t have avoided it if you wanted to. Athletes like Castar Semenya and Justin Gatlin have been subject to much media scrutiny, polarising audiences who are up in arms over whether or not their victories are “fair.” But the biggest story for me – one that no one seems to be talking about – is how much coverage the IAAF championships have received compared to the Para Athletics just two weeks before.

I was lucky enough to witness one of the World Para Athletics Championships sessions and it was an astounding thing to behold. I watched a blind man run 100 metres in 11 seconds. I watched our very own Hannah Cockcroft take home the gold for Britain in the T34 100 metres. I watched hundreds of other athletes at the top of their game being showered with world records.

These feats of superhuman ability left me open-mouthed and incredulous, but what shocked me more than any of the athletics events before me was the fact that almost no one was there to see it.

Queen Elizabeth Stadium has a capacity of 3500. London has a population of 9 million. Yet I sat there alongside a grand total of no more than 400 people, scattered randomly about the lower tier of the stadium. Empty seats as far as the eye could see. The top tier of the stadium wasn’t even in use. Compare that to the crowd watching international face of Quorn Mo Farah cruise through the 5000m heat last night – it was packed to the rafters. When more people turn out to watch The Emoji Movie on its opening weekend than one of the most awe-inspiring celebrations of human achievement imaginable, something has gone very wrong.

OK the 2012 Paralympics was huge, and not only due to a certain headline-grabbing athlete from South Africa. The Paralympics opening ceremony in London attracted almost 8 million viewers, 4 times that of the previous Paralympics in Rio, making it one of the most-watched shows in Channel 4’s 30-year history. Huge figures for an event which has historically gone largely unnoticed in the shadow of its more popular and better-looking sidekick. But did it actually change attitudes towards disability as people predicted at the time?

As the Para Athletics coverage turns out, clearly not. It seems we don’t have enough appetite for disabled sports to get involved in more than one event every four years. After hounding the Queen Elizabeth Stadium staff for information, I learnt that the Para Athletics received more aggregate viewers this year than the last eight years put together. This sounds like a lot, but judging from the turnout I witnessed, the Para Athletics audience eight years ago couldn’t have filled a wheelchair volleyball team.

Why is no one watching?

The cynics among us may put this down to our collective consciousness not viewing disabled sports as “real” sports, yet anyone who has seen a boccia or wheelchair rugby event in action would have no basis to claim they are any less exciting or impressive. The issue has to be marketing. Disability sport doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and the athletes involved aren’t getting anywhere near the exposure their achievements warrant.

One might be forgiven for assuming that disability sport has a large viewing amongst disabled people, but in reality, most of them aren’t watching either. According to a poll commissioned by U.K. disability charity Scope, nearly one in four disabled people believe the Paralympics are patronising, and two-thirds would prefer they be merged with the Olympics.

There is certainly some truth in the view that there’s a disproportionate emphasis around impairment compared with sporting achievement, and many disabled people feel coverage is too heavily focused on the patronising language around disability.

Broadcasting these sports with an “Oh good for them” attitude isn’t helpful for anyone. Highlighting the bravery and courage of a multiple gold-medal-winning disabled athlete only succeeds in broadening the dichotomy between the two categories. The meagre attempts to market athletes alongside Olympic ones has served to magnify the differences between them, rather than erode them.

So what’s the solution?  Merging disabled and abled sports could give disabled athletes the credibility and celebration they so deserve, but there is a risk that they become subsumed by the larger body and overshadowed by the Mo Farahs, Jessica Ennis-Hills and Usain Bolts of the world.

Paralympian Hannah Cockroft says “I don’t want the Olympics and Paralympics to merge because I am proud of what we have made of that name but it would be amazing to gain some new fans who didn’t know we were there.”

Interest in disabled sports will die if they are not marketed properly. The best solution for everyone is surely to invest time and effort in making sure that disability sport can be as parallel to non-disabled sport as possible.

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