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Health, Sports & Psychology

Invisible athletes: or am I just too tired to see them?

Updated Friday, 26th September 2008

Despite Paralympic successes over the years, Kath Woodward worries we'll be back to four years of invisible athletes, and wall to wall football after the 2012 Paralympics

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The end of the Beijing Olympics marked a great celebration of sporting achievements, vindicating the claim that the Olympics are the greatest show on earth; with hours of exciting viewing which included the visibility of many of those who rarely receive media coverage, or even any coverage on television and the sports pages. Beijing was spectacular in much more than the opening and closing ceremonies (although it’s probably best not to spend too long discussing the handover ceremony, with its somewhat bizarre condensation of Britishness). 

During the Olympics, viewers witnessed the visible presence of strong athletic women, there because they excel in their sports and not judged by criteria of sexualised aesthetics. (see the Women Sport Report). Not only were there more women taking part, but their representation and inclusion in the ‘Team GB’ Olympic story was positive and exhilarating. As Kira Cochrane optimistically put it in a Guardian article, these Games marked the transition from ‘Wags to winners’.

Team GB women's swimming team Creative commons image Icon The Wolf under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license

As Cochrane notes, we are more used to judging women by their physical appearance and dress than by their physical, competitive skills and prowess. The images kept on coming; Nicole Cooke, Rebecca Adlington, Joanne Jackson and Shanaze Reade, featured in the BBC Open University Olympic Dreams series as athletes who could make it to the top in 2012.

The Beijing Games, when ordinary women reached the heights, might have marked a significant shift from the representation of women as celebrities, wags or tragic figures in Reality TV, whose lives are in disarray to athletic high achievers. Visibility matters, but it is the form that visibility takes which matters most.


Disabled athletes enjoyed a presence on the screens and in the press during the Paralympics too. Cochrane noted this in a later article in which she celebrated the increased media coverage of the Paralympics in Beijing. The Games might not have been wall to wall but it was on prime time TV and it certainly generated a positive response from viewers. Media coverage of the Paralympics was sport specific and challenged the association between disability and victimhood, by showing high levels of achievement and sporting competence and the diversity and heterogeneity of the competitors.


Once the Games were over, however the estimated 10 million disabled people in the UK were  back in the closet, women were mostly off the sports pages and were back to wall to wall football. Not that I don’t like football, but we seem to have lost the diversity, variety and equity that marked the coverage of the Games. In the interim test cricket provided a source of celebration for England cricket fans but none of the diversity of the Olympics. Were we too exhausted by the Games to notice its legacy?  Now we are back in the run up to the Games and excitement is mounting, the Cultural Olympiad is focused on giving everyone a chance to be part of London 2012, but can 2012 create a more sustained legacy of equality and diversity?





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