Paralympics: Pity? Please!

Curt Petrovich examines the differences in approaches to the Olympic and Paralympic games, from retailing to media coverage.

The line-ups that clogged the sidewalks around The Bay's Olympic merchandise mecca in Vancouver are gone.  Inside the 20,000-square-foot store-within-a-store, the company is still doing a brisk business.  For many, the only prescription for lingering Olympic fever is some textile or knick-knack branded with the games logo.  

Canada's national anthem is played at the medals plaza in Whistler, B.C., as Lauren Woolstencroft receives her gold medal in women's standing slalom during a medal presentation at the Paralympics. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))
In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that a few days after the games ended I went online to buy matching Team Canada jerseys for my three-year-old son and me. So I know of what I speak.  

But other than the day the Olympic clothing line was announced back in October, this is my first visit to the store. And it's not Olympic bric-a-brac I'm after. It's Paralympic paraphernalia.  

The store's retail director, Dana Hall, guides me to a few racks of T-shirts, hoodies and hats.  

"This squared off section here is all for the Paralympics," she says with a wave of her arm.  

When I suggest the obvious, that stuff with the Paralympic logo isn't as varied and plentiful as Olympic merchandise, Hall, earnest and sincere, tells me I'm looking at it the wrong way.  

"How we look at is, it's an add-on, so actually, you have more."  

And I'm Winston Smith.   

I resist the temptation to ask about chocolate rations and instead ask about mittens. Specifically, the iconic red ones embroidered with the Olympic logo, that were made in the millions.  I know that only enough were made with the Paralympic logo,  to give to games participants.  None was ever available for sale.  

To be fair, Hall isn't the one who made that decision.  But it's clear she's thought about it.  

"I don't think we — and this is my personal opinion," she cautions — "I don't think we wanted to distinguish. I think people are people and there is no difference in who we are.  Whether we were born without legs or arms or deaf or blind, we're all people, and we're all exactly the same, and we should be treated the same."  

Is that Kumbayah coming from the store's background music system?  

Of course, as an explanation, it makes no sense. I mean, we're talking about an event that is based on being separate and distinct.  

While I imagine that the decision was really more about how much money there was to be made in marketing mittens with a different logo on them, it turns out that doing right by the athletes in the Paralympics is a bit more complex.  

'Parallel' games

"The word Paralympic comes from the Greek,"  Donovan Tildesley informs me. "It had nothing to do with being paralyzed or paraplegic. The Paralympics are supposed to be parallel to the Olympics — meaning running along side."  

Tildesley is a multiple medallist in swimming. He carried the flag for the Canadian team competing at the Paralympics in Beijing two years ago. He's blind.  

"As much as I'd like to see it the same, I think we have to respect the fact that it is a young movement, and there are far less athletes competing. So of course it's going to be scaled down somewhat."  

Tildesley is willing to cut The Bay a bit of slack. He accepts that mitten-gate may simply have been an oversight.  That's not to say he isn't frustrated by the attention deficit suffered by the Paralympics.  

"The media doesn't realize how important these games are, and they're no longer a pity games, or the red-headed step cousin to the Olympics."  

Ouch. In one blunt sentence, Tildesley  turns the tables on me.  While I can't personally accept responsibility for media coverage of the Paralympics, any more than I can be blamed for kids being desensitized to violence,  I realize I can't be neutral on the subject.  

Tildesley can't see me shift uncomfortably in my seat as I begin wrestling with my guilt. Then he throws me a lifeline when he suggests that the International Paralympic Committee itself is part of the problem.  The movement's motto is "Spirit in Motion."  Tildesley invites me to compare that with the Olympic logo, "Faster, Higher, Stronger."  

"These are high-performance athletes," he says. "Not athletes who've had to strive to overcome adversity and given their pity shot to show the world what can be done."  

On that note, I mention that  the founding president of the International Paralympic Committee, Dr. Robert Steadward, suggested the two movements be combined.

Noting the lag of almost two weeks between the Olympics closing ceremony and the opening gala for the Paralympics, Steadward told a luncheon crowd that holding the games simultaneously would help the Paralympics capitalize on the "energy" from the Olympics.   

Tildesley isn't keen.  

"Running them consecutively would be a logistical nightmare," he quickly decides. Running them first would make paralympians "guinea pigs" to work out the glitches.  

Tildesley acknowledges, however, that there is unequal treatment — and not just from the media. Paralympians who make the podium, don't enjoy the money-for-medals paid to their Olympic counterparts. Carla Qualtrough, the president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, says that will soon change.  

Preserving identity

Just before the Paralympics opening ceremony, the current president of the International Paralympic Committee, Sir Phillip Craven, downplayed concerns about the future of the games as a separate entity. 

Craven said that melding the two events would rob the Paralympics of its identity.  

"Some people always look at things in size," he said following one news conference. "Don't always just look at size. The Olympic games and the Paralympic games together make a very good fit."

What Craven thought didn't fit, though, was the broadcast consortium's plans for covering the opening ceremony. Unlike the moment-by-moment national live broadcast of the Olympic opening gala, CTV was content to tape the Paralympic festivities and air it the next day.  

Craven told the Globe and Mail that CTV's decision was a "smack in the face" to the Paralympic value of equality.    

A day earlier, I asked the extravaganza's producer about the decision.  Robert Lepage told me that he accepted CTV's explanation, that airing the show the next day ahead of a sledge hockey game was a better idea.  

"I think more people will get to celebrate it," he told me.  

Did I miss a memo?  Are chocolate rations being increased, again?  

Donovan Tildesley is apparently keeping track.  

"I think as a Canadian that's a disgrace. I don't see why that wouldn't be done, or couldn't be done."  

He wasn't the only one. CTV came to its senses, partially. It did air the opening ceremony live, but only in B.C.  And the network pointed out that its coverage of the Paralympics, while a small fraction compared to the Olympics, still tops anything the CBC ever did in the past.  

Over at The Bay's Olympic superstore, they've got a jump on dealing with the Paralympics.  

Director Dana Hall tells me that everyone has gone through training to deal with the "disproportionate amount" of customers with special needs.  

"We're not used to dealing with that many people," she says.  

So to make sure no one's offended, store staff are being taught some etiquette.  

"You're never supposed to pat or touch a seeing eye dog", Hall informs me. I think I knew that one. Her next tip wasn't as familiar. "You know,  if somebody can't speak, don't yell louder as though they're stupid 'cause they're not stupid." 

Good advice. Clearly, we all have something to learn.