All that Glitters is not Gold

By Federico Bartolomei

Different treatment by the media for olympic athletes.

The paraolympics are games in which participate disabled athletes animated by the same spirit and the same enthusiasm as the abled-bodies.
For obvious reasons, it is not conceivable to imagine direct challenges between disabled and non-disabled athletes, but some results achieved, in different cases, are not so far from the records attained by the super athletes we are used to see on television. Besides, we have all seen by now the passionate and enjoyable sporting events with disabled athletes winning against titled champions obligated to confront each other, of course, on equal terms.Stopwatch
A pioneer in introducing sporting activities in the life of persons with disabilities was Sir Ludwig Guttmann, neurosurgeon at the hospital of Stoke Mandeville, near London. He first proposed training programs to young soldiers from the British armed forces, who had bone marrow injuries, with the intention of avoiding secondary pathologies to the disability.
Dr. Guttman's initiative was very well received and on July 28, 1948 the first games took place in Stoke Mandeville for disabled athletes. The first event of olympic status, however, took place in 1960, immediately after the 17th Olympics in Rome.
Today, the paraolympics are just like the Olympic Games and the International Olympic Committee has decided that they must take place in the same country as the Olympic Games.
Nelson Bova is a journalist by now very well known in the social environment. For four years now, he has been writing the weekly column Abilhandicap concerning disability for Rai's Emilia Romagna office. On the occasion of the Olympic Games of Athens 2004, he was our correspondent to the paraolympics.
"This fantastic experience" explains Nelson "has confirmed to me how responsive human beings are facing the hardships of life." Even if he has been in the field for years, the challenges and successes of disabled people continue to interest and astonish him. He does not lose an occasion to describe them to us with the sense of detail of the columnist and the sensibility of a man who has been beyond the common places where often our imagination no longer works.
"Attending swimming races: there are no prosthesis that can compensate, even visually, your handicap. Nude, you are there to confront the challenge. Watching a swimming competition, I thought right away how Athens was a wonderful place, full of meaning and probably the best adapted city to host the paraolympics (I know that there should be no letter 'o' there and that I should write 'paralympics' but, I'm sorry, I write it anyway because I refuse to accept the reasons behind this, that the term 'olympics', like the graphical olympic symbol, has not been authorized by the rights owners for this event). Athens, with its statues, represents ancient Greece and is the testimony of a history based on thousands of years of challenges, conquests, progress, and growth. Time has taken away the hands of the statues or whole arms, or even legs, but they are still here to this day. They have seen, and even fought wars, overcame devastations. They have been faced with the obtuse mind of the human being, but they are still here to tell us thatMedal with their perseverance they have overcome, beyond expectations, all offences of time.
These nude swimmers, physically incomplete, on the side of the pool, ready to confront the umpteenth challenge, have immediately brought to mind images of Greek statues. Two of them did not have three limbs out of four. But not only did they swim fast, once arrived at the winning post - the side of the pool that those without arms have to touch with their head - they stayed in the water talking and making jokes with their trainer, moving like a propeller the only leg or arm.
Then on to an interview in the mixed zone with countrymen journalists, probably their only moment under the spotlight in the last 4 years."
Nelson Bova speaks to us about sporting challenges under the spotlight, just when in Italy there is a growing polemic over the little attention given to the event by television and over the different coverage on olympic and paraolympic athletes.
"There is a lot to say about the matter concerning the paraolympics and the Italian media" he explains "I will only give this symbolic exemple: while I was in Athens, various friends called me, strangers to my work and the olympic environment. I told them I was in Athens for the paraolympics and many answered me: aren't the olympics over in August? My hotel hosted the Dutch tv staff which had set up its studio for their daily broadcasting near the pool on the last floor. Seeing every day these people dressed in orange, I thought to call an Italian friend, also not from my professional environment, who lives in Amsterdam. I only told him I was in Athens, and he immediately asked: You're there for the paraolympics? Here, every newspaper is talking about it."
In Italy, the major news was probably about the remarkable difference in economic compensation between the gold olympic medal winner and the gold paraolympic medal winner. "Yes, this was one of the many arguments discussed in meetings and press conferences during the competitions, but certainly not the only one. If more money is to be given, it is best to invest it in preparing athletes and providing them with facilities, in light of the game's disappointing results: 19 medals. Only a few years ago, we were able to win over 50 of them. Analyzing the context, however, everyone agreed that the other athletes had improved, not that ours had gotten worse.
It can be said, though, that this time there was more media coverage, at the international level, then ever before at the the Paraolympics. Time has passed, fortunately, where televisions explained their refusal to broadcast the event based on the supposedly shocking images and the feeling of pity aroused by images of the athletes."
There olympic experience also created strong impressions in a year full of world events which have little to do with sports and pleasure.
"I have hands-on experience of the limitations to freedom brought on by fear of terrorism. Since Seoul, in 1988, olympics and paraolympics use the same infrastructures. The excellent organization put together for the August event by Greece was exactly the same for the paraolympics, in terms of environments and occupied areas. Even the security systems stayed the same, with continuous controls with the metal detector, very long mandatory distances and drastic limited access to some areas. Sometimes it happened that to go from one stadium to another in the same complex or even within the same stadium, a few meters as the crow flies became never-ending walks, with heavy equipment to carry under the sun or through nondescript corridors. Long distances justified by the overcrowded olympic event, but a bit irritating, however, for the few spectators at the paraolympics." Maybe the paraolympics are penalized even for the fact that they do not occur at the same time as the olympics. "Symbolically yes, I think. But, we have to take into consideration other aspects which are not secondary at all. To have competitions at the same time would require a longer stay (and that is certainly not feasable because of the few resources available to our disabled athletes), and if competitions were to alternate, enormous investments in infrastructures would be required in order to host all athletes at the same time. But the most negative result of this choice would be the complete absence of media attention at the paraolympics, obscured by the prowess of the abled-body athletes. An unforgivable error. If we want to give some value to symbolic gestures, let's leave things as they are, but let's light up the olympic flame just once at the beginning of the olympics and extinguish it just once at the end of the paraolympics. Because, in the end, the event is unique and it does not matter whether the torchbearer is abled or disabled. What matters is that he or she is an athlete.
And let's not repeat the error of our Chief of State who has welcomed at the Quirinale the olympic athletes on the last day of the paraolympics.
But these are all personal views elaborated upon my return in Italy. During the competitions, I worked a lot, but most of all I had fun. It happens often to me to use the word fun when I am referring to experiences humanly enriching."