Keith Strudler: Politics And The Paralympics

Mar 5, 2014

If you’re an American winter Olympian, you should be happy about one thing – that Russia waited until after the Sochi Olympic Games to roll troops into the Ukraine. So technically, Russia didn’t break the nearly irrelevant Olympic truce that harkens the ethos of the ancient games, where at least for two weeks or so, countries withhold from attacking other countries. Now that the final medal has been awarded, all bets are off on that front, not that Russia hasn’t violated that pact before, as recent as the 2008 Summer Games when Vladimir Putin led an invasion of Georgia the eve of the opening ceremonies.

That said, while the Olympics themselves may be over, the 2014 Olympic process certain isn’t. This weekend starts the far less publicized and attended Paralympic Games, which will host slightly fewer than 600 athletes from 39 nations, a fraction of the thousands that compete in the Olympics themselves. The Paralympics use the same facilities, virtually the same sports, and bring with them the same ideals of international competition. Yet given the contextual differences, they bring with them much less geopolitical baggage. The Paralympics, certainly to the outside viewer, will always be framed by the construct of disability sport, while the Olympics has generally been viewed as a means of global conquest without bombs or moon landings. That may be different to the Paralympic athletes themselves, who certainly view themselves as far more than feel good stories, but the accepted narrative frames the event in far more humanistic context.

That said, these particular upcoming Paralympics couldn’t come at a worse time. Beyond the relative disaster that was the Sochi Olympics, where the only thing harder to find than fans was snow, these Games come fully in the midst of Russian aggression that firmly puts American interests against those of the host nation. That wasn’t the case when the Olympics themselves began several weeks back, even if there was ample tension over less violent affairs. But even then countries pulled support from the Games, typically keeping top raking government officials at bay. That’s why President Obama never went, along with a whole host of European heads of state.

But now things are worse, and the Games, the Paralympic Games, are scheduled to go on. More than a few nations have pulled their presidential delegations, including the US, which won’t send any senators, or ambassadors, or really anyone else that makes the US look like we care. The British government’s followed suit, with the rest of Europe not far behind. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin will be at the event, which, let’s face it, would have made for one uncomfortable cocktail party.

That said, no one, not even the Ukrainian team, has pulled its athletes yet. And by all accounts, no one except maybe the Ukrainians will. Our president has already wished the US athletes their best, and, as they say, the games will go on.

I can only wonder if that would have been the same narrative if we were speaking of the Olympics instead. If this discussion happened in February, not March, the cry for American skiers and skaters to stay home would be louder than a Seattle Seahawks home game. Countless Americans, and many American politicians, would quantify American athletes as the political pawns they are, like they were in 1980. Whether it reached a boycott or not would be conditional, but you can rest assured a game of Olympic chicken would happen.

Not so much for the Paralympics. No one’s mentioned boycott. And no one’s framed this event in geopolitical terms, not the us vs. them that permeates the Olympics. There’s likely a reason for this. For better or worse, the Paralympics are still viewed as a quest against insufferable odds, not a fight to the finish. While American sports fans might dislike the Chinese Olympians, they’d not likely share that view against their Paralympic counterparts. To American sports fans, the Paralympians are far more autonomous, I’d imagine, making any talk of a boycott illogical.

I suppose that’s good for current Paralympic athletes, if not oddly bad for the movement. Respect comes fully when paralympians aren’t viewed as disabled athletes, but rather athletes with disabilities. Athletes that have the same ambitions as their able bodied peers. Athletes that dislike the competition just as much as anyone else. And, athletes that should boycott these Russian Games, because they can be just as politically vital as everyone else.

That’s not likely a popular opinion. Then again, I thought we should have boycotted the Olympics, even before the Ukraine crisis. So go figure.  And of course, we didn’t. If nothing else, that’s at least one thing American athletes, able bodied and disabled alike, can be happy about.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

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