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The sporting heroes ignored by the Australian media

In a nation obsessed with sport, Australia’s disabled athletes are severely under-represented in the media. Rebecca Adams reports.

Chances are, you know somebody affected by a disability. It may be your friend, partner, family member or neighbour. Whether their disability is mental or physical, slight or totally debilitating, these everyday Australians face a constant battle.

So when our many disabled athletes manage to excel by even able-bodied sports standards, recognition is due. These inspiring, unsung Australian heroes receive little to no media exposure while the sex lives of AFL players are made public every second week. The International Day of People with a Disability on December 3 is one of the few ways through which these athletes are showed the respect they deserve.

The 2010 Winter Paralympic Games of March saw 11 Australians, the largest delegation yet, head to Vancouver. Australia has competed in every Winter Paralympics since the games began in 1976, with this year’s achievements adding to an overall tally of 24 medals. Our able-bodied Winter Olympic team has won only 6.

The Winter Paralympic Games were broadcast nightly on ABC1 at 6.30pm. This was a 30 minute talk-show program featuring highlights, interviews, medal tallies and athlete profiles – but no actual games coverage – and was run again as a repeat at 11pm. Compare this to the recent Channel Ten Delhi Commonwealth Games coverage, which spanned nearly 18 hours a day breaking only for Malcolm in the Middle reruns, and you can begin to see the severe lack of media attention surrounding disabled sports.

Not only did the Games themselves receive little coverage but the Opening Ceremony, an important spectacle of the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, was initially not even going to be aired live in the host country. CTV, the official Canadian broadcaster, had planned to instead run Access Hollywood and Ghost Whisperer until it caved under public pressure. ABC’s coverage was not much better, showing only a highlight package at 12.05am the following Sunday morning. Not exactly prime time viewing.

With such little support of these major events, it is no wonder local disabled sports organisations are low on numbers. Disabled sports in Australia cater to those with an amputation, cerebral palsy, limb deficiency, vision impairment, intellectual disability or those who are wheelchair-bound. From archery and athletics to powerlifting, swimming and winter sports such as alpine skiing, the problem is not lack of choice or availability of disabled sports. The current issue lies in the fact that without media exposure and awareness, participation will continue to fall and these local events may be forced to cease all together.

Last weekend marked the annual Victorian Wheelchair Tennis Open at the Coca Cola Complex courts in Bendigo. Athletes travelled from all over to participate and two men even made the journey from Vanuatu. Despite the significance of this event, which drew some big names in the field including Beijing wheelchair basketball gold medallist Dylan Alcott, there was no media representation over the three day tournament. In fact, several locals questioned at Lake Weerona on Saturday, directly across the road from the complex and with a view of the courts, had no idea the tournament was even on.

‘Getting the exposure is a struggle’ admits Andrew Browning, a competitor in the Open. Having played wheelchair tennis for eight years, Browning is a formidable opponent and now a part of Wheelchair Sports Victoria’s successful Wheel Talk program. He has faced the difficulties that come with lack of awareness for a long time, such as lugging portable ramps around on tour before the Bendigo courts provided wheelchair access into their club rooms.

 ‘Had this happened to me 30 or 40 years ago I would have been put in an institution – no-one would have known what to do with me’, he claims. Although he recognises that things are better today, there is still progress to be made. ‘It’s all about educating people’, he insists.

Wheel Talk plays an important role in doing just that. Every week Browning and his fellow presenters travel the state to teach primary and high school students, sometimes even third year university students, about disabilities and life in the chair. ‘We talk a lot about spinal cord injuries; especially coming into summer, we tell kids not to dive into shallow water’ he says. Each session also has a practical component where students experience first-hand a game of wheelchair basketball.

For the hundreds of new Victorians going into a wheelchair each year, getting involved in disabled sports is an important step in healing and rehabilitation, says Browning. Fellow Victorian Open contestant and singles opponent Brian Fitzpatrick agrees. The 48 year old has suffered spina bifida from birth but only recently been forced to use a wheelchair.

‘I had played able bodied tennis previously, so I was intrigued by the sport’ he says. Now, after a year of training and playing around Australia, Fitzpatrick feels more comfortable in talking openly about his life in the chair. Although he finds the tournaments ‘very competitive, still with niche groups and politics’ like any professional circuit, continued support from his peers and opponents makes the effort worthwhile.

Fitzpatrick is passionate about raising awareness of disabled sports and believes they are poorly represented in the media. In his opinion, disabled events should be slotted in with able bodied events during major competitions to draw more attention. ‘I would love to see the Paralympics and Olympics combine’ he says. ‘This integration is the key to creating media exposure’. While the Commonwealth Games abandoned disabled events as mere demonstrations and made them medal worthy in 2002, they are still not equally represented. In Delhi this year there were 38 able bodied swimming events and only six (three male and three female) for disabled swimmers.

There are attempts currently being made to bring disabled sports to the attention of the mainstream. Paralympian Michael Dobbie recently challenged radio host and comedian Dave Hughes to a wheelchair tennis exhibition match over twitter. The affirmative response from Hughesy, much to Dobbie’s surprise, saw the two men sweat it out on October 14th this year at Australian Open home Melbourne Park, with Hughesy winning in a close three sets. Footage of match highlights can be viewed on YouTube and the Nova website.

Australian ‘Marathon Man’ and undisputed sporting hero Kurt Fearnley has also been doing his part to raise the profile of disabled sports. Fearnley’s record is awe-inspiring – the 29 year old from NSW has brought home three gold medals from the last three Paralympic Games, claiming first place in the Athens 2004 marathon after pushing the last five km on a flat tyre. He has travelled the globe, winning races in five different continents. In fact, out of the 38 marathons he has competed in over his career, only two have seen him fail to achieve a podium finish – and in 28 of them he came first.

Fearnley made headlines late last year for his determination to complete the Kokoda Trail, an arduous hike for the fittest able-bodied athletes let alone someone missing the lower portion of his spine. After training for months in preparation, Fearnley took 11 days over November to crawl the trails 96km. His successful completion of the trek has served not only to highlight the capabilities of disabled people, but also to bring attention to other important health issues through his sponsors beyondblue and Movember.

Fearnley is also an ambassador of this year’s International Day of People with a Disability. On December 3rd, 52 events will be held in Victoria alone to raise awareness within our state about disabilities. Federation Square will host the Disability Sport and Recreation Festival, a free community exhibition including ‘come and try’ wheelchair activities and displays from 28 stallholders.

The future of disabled sports in Australia relies on getting media exposure now. We owe it to our champion Paralympians to acknowledge their successes, and also to our local players to ensure their competitions can continue running.

Witnessing the players at the Victorian Wheelchair Tennis Open in Bendigo, it was clear that disabled sport creates not only a purpose, but also a social network. Rivals on court became friends off court, talking openly and honestly about their disabilities. For many who had upcoming operations or had become disabled from a severely traumatising accident, their good humour was inspiring. Playing sport provides an opportunity to cope with their new lives and relate to people going through similar situations. This should not be denied them because some reality TV star getting plastic surgery (looking at you Heidi Montag) is deemed more newsworthy.

So get down to Federation Square on December 3rd and help these heroes get the exposure they need. Take your children, your parents or your workmates. Supporting our disabled athletes by raising awareness may just have benefits for the disabled person that you know too.

Rebecca Adams is a Bachelor of International Relations student at La Trobe University. This is her first piece on upstart.

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