The Guardian • Issue #1978

Medal bonuses don’t address ableism in Paralympic funding

On Thursday, 2nd September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that medalists at this year’s Paralympic Games would get equal payments to their Olympic counterparts for the first time in Australian history. This rectifies a huge disparity in pay between Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Olympic medalists get paid $20,000 per gold medal, $15,000 for a silver medal, and $10,000 for a bronze. Until Thursday’s announcement, Paralympians got nothing.

The Paralympic Games have been held around the same time as the Olympic Games every four years since 1960 when the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome, under the name Stoke Mandeville Games. The first Games featured 400 athletes from twenty-three countries. This year 163 countries were represented.

At the time of writing, at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Australia has won eighty medals: twenty-one gold, twenty-nine silver and thirty bronze. There have been some notable achievements at this year’s games. Dylan Alcott won gold in the wheelchair tennis quad singles against The Netherlands’ Sam Schroder. The Australian women’s goalball team, the Belles, made a quarter-final for the first time ever. Goalball is a sport for athletes with a visual impairment. According to Paralympics Australia,

“The object of the game is to roll the ball into the opponent’s goal while the opposing players try to block the ball with their bodies. Bells inside the ball help orientate the players by indicating the direction of the oncoming ball.”

Ellie Cole won her 17th Paralympic medal in the 4x100m medley relay, making her the most decorated Australian Paralympian in history. Vanessa Low broke the world record for long jump three times in one night, and Madison De Rozario won gold in the women’s T54 marathon.

These are just to name a few – the list of achievements at this Games is long and impressive. So it’s no wonder that the pressure on the government to pay Paralympians an equal medal bonus became too much for the government to ignore. The Prime Minister said of the change

“Australia’s para-athletes have represented our nation with great distinction and pride in Tokyo, delivering performances that have buoyed millions during what is a difficult time for the nation”

With the announcement of equal medal bonuses, some progress has been made towards equality between the treatment of Olympic and Paralympic athletes. However, there is still a huge disparity in funding for Paralympic sport and it is high time that the government’s ableist approach to funding in sport was addressed.

Government funding of Paralympic sport has increased forty per cent since 2012, but it still represents only twenty per cent of total funding for high level sport through the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). This might not seem like a big issue until you realise that sport for athletes with a disability is much more expensive than sport for able-bodied athletes, due in part to the high cost of specialised equipment and training. As former Paralympian racer Kurt Fearnley stated during coverage of the Games this past week, there is a huge financial hurdle for para-athletes getting involved in sport at all.

To meet the cost of training future Paralympians, Paralympics Australia has been crowdfunding at the 2020 Tokyo Games by asking members of the public to buy a virtual seat at the games. 90,673 seats have been sold so far at $25 each for a total of over $2 million raised. According to the Paralympics Australia website:

“Every seat purchased is invested in the next generation of Para-athletes through Paralympics Australia’s community and sports programs, changing community perception, and breaking down barriers. We could not achieve this without the generous support of individuals and organisations.”

This goes to show that current government funding through the AIS is not making the cut. Many athletes at both the Paralympic and Olympic games are sponsored, but here Paralympians are also at a disadvantage. Jodi-Willis Roberts, a Paralympic gold medalist who competes in goalball, discus and shotput, recalled in an article for ABC News that she was rejected for sponsorships because corporations felt her disability would reflect badly on their product.

“We’re not a sideshow,” she stated “we’re athletes out there doing it every bit as hard as every other athlete, and unfortunately we don’t get the same rewards.”

100m T13 runner Chad Perris also brought up the issue of funding. He stated that he expected a reduction in his funding after he finished fifth in his race. This can have flow-on effects, he said, because athletes may have to go out and find other work to fund their next competition, cutting down the number of hours they can train and therefore, in theory, their potential to medal. Scott Morrison’s new funding measures don’t appear to help people in Perris’ position.

But Roberts says the lack of funding is not the fault of Paralympics Australia, who do the best they’re able to with limited funds. The ableist government funding models are the root cause of the problem, but discrimination in sponsorship also needs to be addressed. It is time the government put its money where its mouth is and committed to addressing the disparity in funding and sponsorship opportunities for Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

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