3 Reasons The Paralympics Are Secretly More Feminist Than The Olympics
Every country has its female Paralympic heroes. My own is Australia's Louise Sauvage, who won nine Paralympic gold medals in wheelchair racing and is a legend in Australian sport. Yours might be Team USA's Christella Garcia, the only woman to compete in the entire judo category at the 2016 Paralympics, or Terezinha Guilhermina, a champion sprinter who trained with Usain Bolt. And these upcoming Paralympic Games in PyeongChang this March will doubtless bring new names into the spotlight for us to cheer on. But as we celebrate the feats of excellence that bring Paralympians to the podium, we also need to look at how the Paralympics themselves embrace feminist values, from the use of mixed-gender teams to female participation goals. If you need a boost in your belief in woman's equality in elite sports, PyeongChang in March is the place to look.
The PyeongChang Winter Paralympics will begin on Mar. 9, and they're already shaping up to be hugely exciting. The U.S. team is particularly hoping to take home gold in sled hockey, and is expected to bring its youngest ever alpine skiing team to PyeongChang. But as you watch these amazing athletes compete at the top level of sport in the world, notice the ways in which the organization is structured to create gender equity. Maybe the rest of the sporting world — or, heck, the world at large — will take notice.
1. They Use Mixed-Gender Teams
Every Olympics, or even every major sporting event, there are thinkpieces about whether it's possible to compare the sporting achievements of men and women, assessing the "equivalence" of male and female achievement and world records, because Olympic sports are generally gender-segregated, though more mixed-gender sports are being added, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Paralympics has taken a different perspective: several of its sports allow coed teams of men and women to compete. Gender-nonconforming and intersex athletes are also allowed to compete under IOC rules, though none have yet appeared in Paralympic competitions. They allow gender mixing in teams for rowing, archery, wheelchair rugby, shooting, and a host of other sports, leading the way in a trend that's now seeing the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 line up mixed-gender teams for athletics, table tennis, swimming and triathlons. Mixed-gender wheelchair rugby made its debut in London in 2012, and met with huge crowd approval — and the 2018 Paralympics will bring new mixed-gender opportunities in sports like curling. It's difficult to argue that women are more "delicate" or less athletically capable than men when you see them charging down the field with male compatriots as part of the same highly drilled team.
2. They've Seen Rocketing Female Participation
Compared to the Sochi Paralympics in 2014, the number of female Paralympians has skyrocketed. In Sochi, women made up 129 out of a total of 547 athletes; in PyeongChang, the count of female athletes has boomed by 44 percent, compared to a 24 percent increase in athletes of any gender. And that's with the exclusion of Russia, who topped the medal table at Sochi. (Russia has been banned from PyeongChang in general after systematic doping was made public, though Russian athletes are still competing as "Olympic Athletes From Russia".) The Paralympic organizers, across both summer and winter events, have been open about their goal for gender parity since at least 2014, but it's only since the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics that numbers have begun to rise steadily. At this rate, they may achieve gender parity before the Olympics themselves; Rio saw the highest number of female Olympians in history, but it was still only 45 percent of the total.
3. They Acknowledge That There's Still A Way To Go
While the Paralympics emphasize female participation and breaking records, they're still prepared to admit that there's a way to go to achieve total inclusion, and put a lot of work into breaking new ground for athletes, coaches and administrators. In 2017, for instance, the Agitos Foundation put together a winter sports training camp and coaching school in South Korea, to hone athletic skills and attract more female Paralympic athletes to ice hockey in particular. "The fate of women in the Paralympic Movement," wrote Andrea Bundon, who guided blind skier Courtney Knight at the 2012 Vancouver Paralympics, "isn’t something we can offload to a task force — it’s for each of us to tackle from wherever we are."
The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Paralympics will probably give us a lot to be excited and hopeful about — and we can watch with a lot of pride at the sheer amount of female excellence on show. But they also carry a lot of feminist lessons about inclusion, structural support and intersectional thinking that we can all take on board.