It would have been all but impossible to watch the Tokyo Paralympic Games without feeling inspired.
How could anyone not be inspired watching disabled athletes from around the globe overcoming challenges as they battle for a place on the podium? But the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Paralympics — the biggest ever, with 4,403 athletes from 162 countries, including 128 Canadians — offered viewers a fresh perspective on the concept of inspiration.
A growing number of Paralympic athletes and organizations are speaking out against so-called "inspiration porn," wherein disabled athletes are hailed as inspirational purely because they compete despite a disability.
These athletes see themselves as more than just a feel-good story for able-bodied sports fans. They’re dedicated to doing something they love, and want to do it without having complete strangers gushing over how "inspiring" and "brave" they are.
That message was behind a new campaign created by a Canadian ad agency for World Wheelchair Rugby, which aired forcefully direct 30-second commercials during the Tokyo Paralympics as well as a 90-second spot on the organization’s social media channels.
The ads show a young man watching Team Canada’s two-time Paralympian Zak "The Kid" Madell play, and then deciding to train to become a wheelchair rugby player himself. Later, as he races with the ball during a match, Mr. Madell hammers into him at full speed, knocking him down and stealing the ball. The closing message makes the point abundantly clear: "We’re not here to inspire. We’re here to win."
These athletes see themselves as more than just a feel–good story for able–bodied sports fans. They’re dedicated to doing something they love, and want to do it without having complete strangers gushing over how "inspiring" and "brave" they are.
No one is suggesting viewers, able-bodied or otherwise, shouldn’t be inspired watching Paralympians in their quest for medals. But these athletes don’t want to be cheered simply because they are competing while disabled; they want to be celebrated for striving to be faster, higher and stronger than anyone else on the planet.
Paralympians don’t deserve accolades because of their ability to motivate others. Athletes such as Mr. Madell — who helped Team Canada win silver at the 2012 Paralympic Games and gold at the 2015 Parapan American Games — earn acclaim because they’ve made the same sacrifices as any able-bodied competitor.
"Wheelchair rugby is a fierce and fast-paced game that’s played and watched by people of all abilities. But as an athlete, I want to be recognized for my desire to win, not just my disability," said Mr. Madell, whose sport was invented in the 1970s in Winnipeg and originally dubbed "Murderball."
For Canadian sports fans, there certainly has been no shortage of inspiring moments at the 16th Paralympics in Tokyo. It was inspiring on Day 8 to watch Canadian swimmer Aurélie Rivard crush her own world record by five seconds and grab gold in the women’s S10 category 400-metre freestyle.
It was inspiring to see 7-foot-2 shot-putter Greg Stewart, of Kamloops, B.C., make history with his first throw, posting a distance of 16.75 metres to set a new Paralympic record. It was inspiring to see Olivia Meier of Winnipeg make history when she became the first Canadian to compete in para badminton at the first games to offer primetime broadcasts in Canada and the U.S.
In most settings, the sole motivation of sports fans is to see who wins and to cheer for their favourite athletes or teams. It’s time for that baseline level of investment to be what drives fans to watch the Paralympics.
Rather than just "inspiring" fans, let’s hope future Paralympic Games leave them impressed, thrilled and hoarse from cheering for the best in the world at their chosen sports.