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Paralympics awareness grows

August 29th 2012





IT was just as well Josh Blue had a sense of humour because every time he returned to the US after touring abroad with the US Paralympic football team he would be greeted with blank stares. The parawhat?

The excitement of playing before cheering crowds in Europe and South America would dissolve in the indifference and ignorance of his home country. The striker and his disabled teammates would play domestic games in near-empty stadiums. Even after competing in the 2004 Games in Athens, Blue, who has cerebral palsy, returned home to silence and shrugs. “Unfortunately it just doesn’t get any play here.”

A stand-up comedian, it was not until he won NBC’s reality show, Last Comic Standing, in 2006 that the American public woke up to his talent, off the field at least.

Blue has a self-deprecating humour focused on living with disability which enchanted viewers and critics. There was little funny, however, about US ignorance of the Paralympics, a vacuum which left US competitors envious of the support disabled athletes enjoyed in other countries. “You’d hear about all these projects and think, wow, why aren’t we doing that?” said Christine Tinberg, founder of Bicycling Blind Los Angeles.

London’s Games, however, may signal a turning of the tide. Companies like Visa and General Electric are featuring slick commercials with disabled athletes to endorse a range of products. Some disabled athletes are finding additional audiences through social media.

Disabled military veterans-turned Paralympians are tapping patriotic sentiment. NBC recently announced it would scale up coverage, previously virtually non-existent, to four hour-long programmes on NBC Sports plus a daily highlights package via the US Paralympics YouTube channel.

But why has the US been so resistant until now? And to what extent is it embracing the London Games?

Beth Haller, a professor of mass communication at Towson University who has written about disability issues, said apathy was largely the result of media neglect. Television networks shunned previous games, she said, leaving viewers unaware there even was a competition for disabled athletes after the regular Olympics. “Much of it boils down to the economic structure of our media. It concentrates on what will make money, and it thinks the Paralympics won’t do that.”

Another reason for apathy, said Haller, was that US medal success in the Olympic Games sated national pride, unlike some smaller countries which viewed the Paralympics as an opportunity for consolation medals. Even so, the US amassed 99 medals in Beijing, coming third overall.

US awareness has been negligible even among the disabled. Growing up in Minnesota, Blue, a talented footballer from an early age, did not hear about the Paralympics until the age of 22 when a sports-loving disabled friend said: “You know there’s a team for you, right?”

Soon after Blue was scoring goals for the Paralympic squad, but it rankled that he could have been doing so years earlier….

Blue said he will follow his beloved football team from afar. Their first game is against Ukraine, a powerhouse ranked third in the world. “But they’re getting old. We think we can take them.”

Originally published by Dawn Pakistan

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