“The Olympics are where heroes are created. The Paralympics is where heroes come.” — “Rising Phoenix,” 2020
Last August, in the wake of the stress of my first-ever week at UC Berkeley, I gingerly nestled myself into my orthopedic back pillow with my IV bag hooked up and scrolled through Netflix’s “recently added” documentaries.
Having seen Netflix’s “Athlete A,” a documentary investigating allegations of sexual harassment on the women’s Olympic U.S. gymnastics team, I had been in search of a similarly hard-hitting documentary.
My attention was drawn to a newly-released documentary titled “Rising Phoenix,” being suggested to me because I watched “Athlete A.”
Within the next week, I had not only seen the film twice — once with my boyfriend — but was now actively convincing anyone who would listen to please watch this important film.
The award-winning 2020 documentary investigates the wrongful use of Olympic and Paralympic funds — which nearly led to the outright cancellation of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games — against the backdrop of Paralympic history. By interviewing current and former Paralympic athletes and Olympic executives, the documentary seeks to uncover the systemic suppression of disabled athletes that has been occurring since the founding of the Paralympics in 1960.
As a disabled individual, I’ve understood and advocated for the inclusion of disabled individuals in sports from a young age, especially when I played softball in high school.
Although I hid my disability from the other girls for fear that they would treat me differently, I recognize that I was one of the lucky ones who have the privilege to not only hide my deficiencies as I wished but also present as an abled individual enough to get on the team.
It’s no secret that disabled individuals, particularly athletes, are often sensationalized, their every activity reduced to inspiration porn as society’s skewed expectations of us are revealed.
At the end of my first high school softball season, I was awarded a plaque by my coach that read “Most Inspirational Player.”
It wasn’t even an everybody-gets-an-award thing, either; we were 16-year-olds.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, Paralympians are serious athletes.
When I showed my boyfriend a YouTube video of wheelchair rugby, his jaw fell open at what he thought was the coolest thing ever. Just something about athletes slamming their wheelchairs into one other at full speed makes it seem as if they are literally smashing the stereotype of disabled individuals as fragile or weak.
Although I fancy myself a super-woke disability activist, “Rising Phoenix” opened my eyes to how little I actually knew about parasports.
One of my close ostomate friends and fellow Golden Bears was a competitive distance runner during his time at UC Berkeley and was Olympic-bound before he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, resulting in ileostomy surgery.
I remember thinking often — as he is still a competitive runner — why don’t you just run in the Paralympics?
Because. It’s not that simple.
The International Paralympic Committee has an elaborate system of classifications for determining the level of disability in relation to the level of disability of the other athletes. Most Paralympic sporting events are designed to mirror their Olympic counterparts, with the needs of the disabled athletes in mind.
For example, in para-soccer, the classification for athletes with impaired vision has the entire team fitted with blindfolds to ensure fairness across varying degrees of vision impairment.
For sports such as swimming, athletes are placed categorically with competitors of their classification: limb difference, spinal cord injury, short stature, intellectual impairment, to name a few.
Paralympic track and field events have their own unique set of characteristics apart from other events. One such event is partnered-running, an event in which runners with visual impairments compete with a sighted guide. These sighted guides are the same height as the athlete, have trained extensively with them in order to run at the athlete’s exact pace and compete tethered to the athlete.
It’s as amazing as it sounds.
I was surprised, and elated, that they were televising the Paralympic trials this year.
Although they only had three Paralympic event trials streaming on Peacock, I sat for hours watching them all, just as I had several months ago watched “Rising Phoenix.” That feeling of hope, that you’re witnessing something important and empowering. Like I was actually experiencing a detectable mind shift of the way people view disabled individuals.
The Tokyo 2021 Paralympics will begin Tuesday, August 24, streaming on Peacock TV and other NBC platforms.
I urge you to find time in your busy life to watch the Paralympics this year. It doesn’t even have to be live as it airs; turn it on in between meetings and classes. Watch clips on YouTube, and follow athletes and the Paralympics on social media.
Try to see them as real people, real athletes with real everyday lives and stories they embody. Try to look beyond their disabilities, and, instead, focus on the fact that many Paralympic track athletes can run faster than their abled counterparts. Focus on the fact that they are not inspiring, not brave, not doing this for the inspiration and enjoyment of others, but because they can.
I promise: You will not be disappointed.