AFTER an un-Olympic start, preceded by the banning of Russian athletes and several national athletics organisations from developing countries failing to get promised grants on time and in full to facilitate the participation of their stars, the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro finally kicked off on Thursday in front of a capacity crowd at the famous Maracana Stadium.
To add politics to the drama, the new Brazilian president, Michel Temer, was booed at the opening ceremony because he was regarded by some Brazilians as an illegitimate leader after the impeachment of the country’s elected president, Dilma Rousseff.
Similarly, Andrey Fomachkin, the Belarussian official who carried a Russian flag in the opening ceremony, was banned for violating the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) ban on political gestures. Russia, which borders Belarus, was controversially banned from participating at the Paralympics over allegations of state-sponsored doping.
The latter is inexplicable given that only a few weeks earlier the International Olympic Committee allowed able-bodied Russian competitors to compete at the 2016 Rio Olympics without any exceptions. Which begs the question, what makes Russian Paralympians so different to warrant such a ban?
Surely, if the able-bodied Russian athletes were allowed to participate in the Olympics, their disabled compatriots should have been allowed to compete in the Paralympics. It seems that IPC officials are either on a power trip or misguided by an irrational exuberance fed by a sense of righteousness and indignation.
It also raises the dichotomy and seemingly entrenched contradictions in the governance of the Olympic movement and its various affiliated international sports federations, which frankly over the last two decades have not been “fit for purpose”.
No one is suggesting that doping, whether by Russians or any other nationals, be overlooked. But in the spirit of the Olympic ethos, there has to be a sense of parity and fairness in the application of rules, enforcement and punishment.
Discriminating between able-bodied and disabled athletes is crass, prejudicial and meaningless. Once again, it is the latter that has to bear the brunt of the consequences of the alleged doping antics of the Russian state. One wonders what the reaction would have been if the tables were reversed — the able-bodied athletes were banned, and the Paralympians allowed to compete.
Disabled people in the world could do without such blatant discrimination, whether in sport or other sectors of society. As they have shown in the first few days of Paralympics 2016, they rose to the occasion and showed the world that sporting excellence and achievement is not the monopoly of the able-bodied, and that some of their feats were more courageous and remarkable given the constraints and prejudice, which they are often subject to. Breaking world records thus far have proven to be the least of their impediments.
Take for instance Zulfiya Gabidullina from Kazakhstan. At the young age of 50 years, Zulfiya set a new world record in the 100m freestyle swimming in the S3 class for athletes with amputations, no use of their legs or severe coordination difficulties. This was Kazakhstan’s first-ever medal at the Paralympic Games. The list of achievements thus far is impressive and endless.
The treatment of the disabled and handicapped in sport is a microcosm of their treatment in society in general. The number of disabled people in the world continues to rise, especially in conflict countries. According to United Nations (UN) data, there are over one billion disabled people in the world. A report to be presented to the 3rd UN Global Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador, next month, predicts that out of an estimated urban population of 6.25 billion by the year 2050, some 15 per cent will be people with disabilities.
Urbanisation, says the report, is currently one of the most important global trends of the 21st century and has a great potential to be an engine to achieve sustainable and inclusive development for all. But, “available evidence reveals a widespread lack of accessibility to built environments, from roads and housing, to public buildings and spaces and to basic urban services such as sanitation and water, health, education, transportation, and emergency and disaster response and access to information and communications,” stresses the report.
The causes of disability are manifold — where the affliction is man-made through the brutality of war inflicted by bombing and the resultant shrapnel; the laying of heinous land mines, despite these being outlawed in international conventions; revenge attacks by protagonists on innocent civilians; and, through seemingly stone age cultural and social norms based on a warped sense of “honour” in terms of acid attacks and other types of mutilations, especially of daughters and wives who are deemed to have “dishonoured” the family by refusing to partake in a forced marriage or a wife seeking a divorce from an abusive husband.
Of course, there are several other causes of disability through genetic and birth defects; debilitating diseases; mental illness; accidents and so on.
Yet, the treatment of the disabled can either bring out the best or the worst in human behaviour!
Last year for instance, Team Great Britain Paralympian, Claire Harvey, returning from the IPC World Athletics Championships in Doha, was forced to drag herself from a Qatar Airways flight after being left on board. Harvey, who lost the use of her legs after a spinal cord injury, claimed she was manhandled by a steward, who hurried her to get off the plane. Similarly, British Airways unceremoniously removed an incensed Luke Kenshole, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, after taking his seat on the plane from London Heathrow to Philadelphia. British Airways staff decided he was unfit to travel on a journey that he had made before with the airline.
So much so for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, which was adopted by the UN in 2006 and which sets out what human rights mean in the context of disability and as full and equal citizens. These rights are also incorporated in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as espoused by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, whose achievement period concluded in 2015.
Disability is well incorporated in the SDGs, specifically related to education, growth and employment, inequality, accessibility of human settlements, as well as data collection and monitoring of the SDGs.
However, protocols often are subject to the vagaries of economic conditions and policies, such as austerity measures, which is the flavour of the times in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008.
Take for instance the United Kingdom, arguably the most generous welfare state on earth. Successive Conservative-led governments have chosen austerity as opposed to the economic growth route to deal with a burgeoning public debt. Disability benefits have not been spared, but streamlined into two main payments — Personal Independence Payment (PIP), with just under 0.75 million recipients, and the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), with tough revised regular eligibility assessments, very often conducted by unqualified assessors more interested in saving money per se than the plight of the applicant.
According to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the UK’s welfare bill continues to rise, which is why the government is cutting back. On the PIP alone, the OBR warns that, unchecked, the cost would reach £18.2 billion in 2021.
The welfare reform policy takes no prisoners. Liz Carr, the wheelchair-bound actress and activist, who plays a forensic examiner in the BBC drama Silent Witness, recently revealed that she has been summoned for a reassessment for her DLA.
Carr is fortunate because she has the nous to channel her outrage and frustration creatively by penning an innovative new drama titled Assisted Suicide: The Musical.
Others, alas, are not so lucky!
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer. He can be reached via email@example.com