A Reflection on the 2016 Olympics Through a Disabled Lens
So much of my identity is contingent upon my strength. Before the development of my disability, I filled all of my spare time with sports. I played everything--competitively. My pride was deeply rooted in a rough exterior and an ability to perform physically that set me apart from many of my peers. At the age of thirteen, however, the discovery of stress fractures, joint dysfunctions, and other similar issues completely uprooted me from an identity I had worked so tirelessly create.. I am now unable to perform any sort of physical activity beyond the boundaries of physical therapy. My story is just one of approximately one billion of those of us who experience some form of a disability.
As the 2016 summer Olympics progressed, articles regarding sexism in sports appeared more frequently on my social media platforms than articles that focused upon oppressive structures in any other cultural sphere. The overwhelming outrage surrounding sexism in the Olympics reminded of the immense global fixation upon physical strength. Trust me-- I love watching Olympians continuously defy what has been previously understood as the limitations of the human body just as much as anybody else. I admire the strength and resilience of figures like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Simone Manuel, who not only compete, but dominate in sports that exist within a long history of patriarchal white supremacy. The intense media attention that “sexism in the Olympics” is presently receiving, however justified and necessary it is, nevertheless paradoxically solidifies a problematic global obsession with physical performance. I have yet to see articles that adequately interrogate the Olympics through a disability-conscious lens, or fundamentally question the potential implications of our global idolization of these athletes.
The critique I present in this piece is not one of athletes themselves, or even of the Olympics as an event, but one of the equation of physical strength to a sense of superiority and cultural, bodily, and spiritual wholeness. Through our cultural fascination with sports, their defining qualities of national identity, their place within our global economy, and so on, we learn to privilege and conflate physical ability with sentiments of power, pride, discipline, and fulfillment. This idealized vision of completeness is yet another reminder to those of us with disabilities that this is not a world built for us.
While inspiring and transformative for some, our cultural prioritization of athletics and the marketing strategies of athletic companies like Nike, Adidas, and Puma, are contingent upon the active shaming of immobility. In many of these advertisements and commercials, movement is empowering and portrayed as both the means and ends by which self-fulfillment may be achieved. By contrasting actions like “sitting on the couch” with the company’s image of exercise, these corporations use a caricature of immobility that is explicitly labeled as shameful. In recent campaigns, companies have also identified “strong” as “the new beautiful.” In a problematized effort to include more body types into a western ideal of beauty, athletic companies have yet again contributed to phenomena such as fat-phobia and ableism. In fact, body type and disability are incredibly influential of one another, and many people who do not fit within rigid standards of beauty and strength actually experience some form of disability.
In examining the more recent events of the paralympics, we begin to see just how rigid standards of strength and physical performance really are. A narrative of “overcoming” plagues these games, insisting that athletes are able to rise above their disabilities in order to achieve the same glory the able bodied athletes do. While I applaud the courage, dedication, and talent of these athletes, the games themselves remind us again how prized physical strength is within our societies. One of the main purposes of the paralympics is to prove, or at the very least, demonstrate how physically disabled athletes can perform at the same level as able-bodied athletes. This sort of thinking lends itself to a dangerous culture in which people believe that those who generally experience oppression can “rise above their struggles” to supposedly gain the same benefits the structurally privileged maintain. Why must physically disabled persons perform at such an intense physical level for them to receive unconditional admiration? For many of us who are physically disabled, the paralympics would never present itself as a feasible option.
I want, more than anything, to feel strong and complete and independent. Everywhere I turn, however, I am reminded time and time again that these ideals of strength and fulfillment can exclusively be achieved via physical conditioning and mobility. While sports do present a crucial space for many to discover, endure, and achieve, it is crucial that we open up more possibilities for those goals of fulfillment that exist in other spheres.
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