As I did the research for the piece, it became quickly clear that I needed to talk not just about the spectacle and scandal, but about sports.
I spent a long time talking over Facebook messenger with Sam de Leve, an athlete but not a paralympian thanks to their complicated classification system (who with what disabilities gets to compete against each other, i.e. people with Down syndrome are largely excluded entirely), and found them amazingly helpful. So read this long interview on Paralympics and representation with de Leve by Vilissa Thompson:
VT: As an athlete, what have you noticed about the diversity of disabled athletes in sports in general, and the Paralympics specifically?
SdL: I live in California, where no single ethnic or racial group forms a majority of the population, so a truly representative athlete population should be majority non-white. While that level of representation does seem to hold on some wheelchair basketball teams I’ve seen, it’s not the case in any other disability sport I’ve encountered at the regional level.
I’ve also noticed a clear class component in disability sport: it’s not only white, but white and middle to upper-middle class. Because of the barriers accessing disability sport, families with social capital are in a significantly better position to navigate those barriers, whether in terms of pushing schools to create access for young disabled athletes (Tatyana McFadden’s family famously had to sue to allow her to race alongside other runners), or in navigating the Byzantine grant system that enables access to equipment.
Finally, there is significant male-domination of many disability sports. Though swimming has fairly even representation, most of the other popular disability sports I’ve seen have a significant male skew, which is reflected in the grants issued by the CAF, 70% of which go to men. It’s possible that a higher percentage of CAF applicants are male, though data is not available on the demographics of the applicant pool.
Sport is important. Access to sport skews white and wealthy. That’s a problem.