Snowbound and watching TV, my younger brother and I flip to the Winter Olympics on NBC. Gracie Jones performs her graceful skating routine as Scott Hamilton yammers in the background. We’re bored, but our interest grows over time. When the network cuts to an NBC commercial, things get really interesting.
“Wow, is this a Paralympics commercial?” my brother asks me.
As I wrote a couple of years ago, most American audiences are apathetic when it comes to watching Olympic sports played by the physically disabled. Even I felt apathetic at the time — though I am physically disabled, myself. The constant coverage and discussion of the “regular” Olympics caused made me feel tired of the whole thing. I found myself just checking on the U.S. Paralympic medal count once in a while online.
I got a lot of criticism for expressing how I felt, but I wasn’t the only one. NBC’s excuse for its terrible coverage of the 2012 Paralympics was literally “sponsor fatigue,” and nothing happens these days without that sweet, corporate-sponsor money.
So watching a commercial that is a 30-second montage of Paralympic athletes skiing downhill, and playing sled hockey to triumphant music was a beautifully surreal moment for me. I participated in wheelchair sports for more than 10 years when I was younger, and I constantly had to make people aware that my hobby even existed. Now they’re being advertised on national television as if things have always been this way.
Is this how civil progress is really made? People fight, and then fight some more until those in power give in and go on as if nothing happened. It would seem that this is the case when we take a closer look.
NBC has expanded its coverage of the Paralympics from four hours on NBC Sports and a 1.5-hour highlight heel on NBC two summers ago to a combined 50 hours on the two networks this winter. The company has also acquired exclusive streaming rights for the Paralympics in the United States. To top it all off, NBC has been able to get that sponsor money from giants such as BMW and Proctor & Gamble.
Maybe I’m being dramatic, but I believe that this could be the start of a renaissance for the world of disabled sports in the United States. It could be a renaissance for the disabled movement in general. Competitive sports bring people together. And the more often people see someone who is different from them on television, the more likely they are going to treat someone like that as an equal in our society.
Sure, things aren’t perfect. The coverage is better, but it doesn’t live up to the ideal — the Paralympic games getting equal time with its Olympic counterparts. And I still don’t trust NBC enough to think that they won’t mess things up somehow. But it is still a huge step in the right direction.
I also think that I should thank my friends on the other side of the pond for spurring this movement in U.S. sports. British audiences showed that they loved watching wheelchair sports, and British networks made money hand over fist by providing over 400 hours worth of coverage. American companies may pretend that they always innovate and the rest of the world follows, but that isn’t true. Sometimes it takes the rest of the billions of people who live on this planet to wake us up and I’m okay with that.
The commercial ends and Scott Hamilton starts talking again. My brother ignores him and turns to me.
“We’re going to have to watch the Paralympics now,” he says.
He’s right. It’s everyone’s responsibility to show that we care about this stuff by actually watching the Paralympics instead of just talking about how much we want to watch them. I know that I am notorious for not committing to anything just because I don’t like having my hands tied to something, but I think that I can change for special events such as this. After all, I didn’t commit to watching the Olympics, but I found myself watching them everyday — and the same thing will probably happen with the Paralympics.
Besides, I love watching sled hockey. And I didn’t even know that wheelchair curling existed until a week ago. I say bring it on!
2014 Paralympics coverage begins on NBC on Friday, March 7, with the live opening ceremony at 11 a.m., and runs through March 22.