On Sept. 12, 2016, Paralympian runner Abdellatif Baka crossed the finish line in Rio de Janeiro, setting the world record for the 1,500-meter race and beating US Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz's time by 1.7 seconds.
In some ways, this year's Paralympics in Rio marked steady progress since competitions past: The 2016 Games saw an increase in televised coverage, attendance numbers that were second only to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, and a number of social media campaigns that drew attention to the achievements of participating athletes. But awareness of the Paralympics among Americans continues to lag far behind the Olympics because of limited resources, reluctance by the media to devote extensive coverage to the event, and common public misconceptions about the nature of the Games.
Some of the disparity in visibility, experts say, has to do with the timing of the Paralympics, which typically begin two weeks after the end of the Olympics.
The break in between may be "a barrier to increasing viewership and attendance of the Paralympic Games," says Elizabeth Delia, assistant professor of sport management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Individuals who spectated the Olympic Games return home," she tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email, and the "buzz" surrounding the Olympics "often diminishes rapidly about a week after the games conclude, and ... is difficult to replicate soon after."
To prevent the Paralympics from becoming an afterthought to the Olympic Games, some have suggested moving the Paralympics to the weeks leading up to the Olympics. This arrangement, proponents argue, would give greater exposure to the Paralympics and provide Olympic organizers with a trial run of sorts in the Olympic venues.
However, as David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Sports Business Institute, points out, "including the Paralympics in the lead up to the Olympics ... would also likely add to the logistical issues associated with hosting the Olympics."
And spreading awareness of the Paralympics as they stand now would require "a substantial increase in marketing, advertising, and promotion" on the part of the games' organizers, Mr. Carter tells the Monitor in an email – "resources not customarily pledged to the event in great quantity given budget considerations."
Where is the media?
But while the International Paralympic Committee may be limited in its resources, a number of external forces have the power to increase the event's visibility. Much of that power lies in the potential to change public perception surrounding the Paralympics and disability in general, experts say.
The most obvious tool for promoting awareness: the media.
The 2016 Paralympics saw an increase in televised coverage by NBC from the 2012 games in London. But media turnout in Rio was still significantly smaller for the Paralympics than for the Olympic Games, particularly among US journalists: There were only 52 print and photo credentials issued to Americans covering the Paralympics, compared to the more than 400 credentials issued to US journalists for the Games two weeks prior.
Twenty-three of those 52 Paralympics credentials belonged to sports journalism students and faculty from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Georgia, who traveled to Rio to cover the Paralympics in an unprecedented field trip.
John Affleck, the Pennsylvania State University sports journalism professor who led the trip, attributes the lack of media attention to several factors, including limited resources, a misconception among journalists that all Paralympic stories must be cast in an uplifting light, and a belief among industry leaders that audiences aren't interested in Paralympic coverage.
But he is optimistic that awareness of the Games will grow in the coming decades and become "much more normalized," in part because of an increase in televised coverage. As that happens, he tells the Monitor in a phone interview, "people are going to start to understand a couple of the common misperceptions about the Paralympics."
Distinguishing the Paralympics
Many people today confuse the Paralympics with the Special Olympics, Professor Affleck says, resulting in the stereotype that "everybody gets a medal." But "the more you see it, the more you understand ... these are high level people."
In the meantime, a number of nonprofits have begun to increase the Paralympics' visibility on a grass-roots level, through social media campaigns geared toward raising awareness "not just of the Paralympics, but the importance of sport for all athletes with physical or mental disabilities," says Stephanie Tryce, assistant professor of sports marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. Social media, she tells the Monitor in a phone interview, may be the most effective way to reach Millennial audiences in particular.
Such campaigns have brought "a lot more visibility" to Paralympic athletes, Professor Delia of the University of Massachusetts says, resulting in increased sponsorship and endorsement opportunities for Paralympic athletes.
Increased visibility of the "achievements of the Paralympians, alongside societal shifts towards more inclusivity and the celebration of diversity has had a dramatic effect on the lives of people living with disability," writes John Head, a lecturer in prosthetics and biomechanics at the University of Salford in England, for The Conversation. "And changes in the perception of disability in society has led many people with limb absence to feel empowered to embrace their physical status, rather than hide it from public view."
A cultural shift is needed
But other experts caution that, in order for greater awareness of the Paralympics to truly benefit the disabled community, a broader cultural shift must take place in the sporting world.
Participation in sports, while beneficial for all people, can be particularly valuable for those with disabilities, as sports allow people to develop self-esteem, build a community, and "generate more acceptance of people," says Gregor Wolbring, associate professor of community rehabilitation and disability studies at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.
However, he says, over time, both the Olympic and Paralympic Games have become "more and more high performance, high technology, and more and more about being No. 1, not just trying one's best." The "superhuman" Paralympian stereotype that has resulted, in which high performance athletics are combined with state of the art equipment and prosthetics, may in fact deter the "average joe" with disabilities from going to the gym or participating in a sports league, Dr. Wolbring explains, as he or she may be self-conscious about not living up to public expectations.
To encourage more people with disabilities to participate in sports, Wolbring calls for the media to "retool what we report on and its importance for people," he says, with a focus on the potential of the Paralympic and Olympic games to unify people of different backgrounds and the importance of sport beyond the aspect of competition.
"Sports originally were not an elite movement," he says. "If you go back in history, one main reason for sports … was about being a way of bringing people together."