As the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games draw to a close, Juliette Pitt reflects on their social and commercial impact
The 2022 Paralympic Winter Games (4-13 March) mark an important moment for disabled citizens and athletes from all around the world. Despite the escalation of geopolitical tensions in many countries since the start of the Winter Olympics in February, the spirit of the Paralympic games has not faded.
The Paralympic Games are a big moment for China and Britain as both nations showcase their biggest teams to date; China had a record 96 athletes and Britain fielded a team of 25, its biggest since the Games in Lillehammer in 1994. China has had an incredible showing, ranking top of the table both in terms of gold medals and overall number of medals.
The prospect of the Games has encouraged many more children and adults with disabilities to try skiing, curling and other sports. It is reported that China has made remarkable progress in the development of winter sports facilities for people with disabilities, and since 2016 the number of Chinese nationals taking part in Paralympic sports has grown from less than 50 to 1,000.
The Paralympic Games is an important reminder about the continuing need for inclusivity of disabled citizens in China. According to a white paper published by the State Council in 2019, there were more than 85 million disabled people in China. Nevertheless, many still face barriers to inclusion in their daily life and exclusionary hiring practices, despite anti-discrimination laws that levy fines against companies who do not fairly consider employing disabled people.
China is making the most of new technologies at this year’s Games and has introduced a smart accessibility service platform that allows athletes staying in the Olympic Village to navigate an accessible route to events via their mobile phones.
One of the most important aspects of the Games is that it aims to provide a voice for people with disabilities. A global human rights campaign called #WeThe15 was launched at Tokyo 2020 by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the International Disability Alliance (IDA). The campaign aims to remove the wide variety of barriers faced by disabled people so everyone can fulfil their potential and be active, visible members of an inclusive society.
Over the years there have been some improvements in the social and commercial visibility of disabled people in China. For example, in 2021, Tmall launched a campaign called the One-Shoe scheme to offer amputees a single shoe. The campaign, which featured disabled professional athletes, proved to be a huge success, attracted over 120 million engagements on Weibo and attempted to emphasise equality and remove stigma. Nevertheless, as the campaign’s creative director Jin Sihan told Dao Insights, it also drew attention to the need for careful messaging around cause-related campaigns, so that brands don’t seem to be taking the moral high ground or patronising either disabled people or the general public.
This year’s Winter Paralympics also marked a “global first” for an international sporting event, as UK broadcaster Channel 4’s coverage of the event will be led by a team comprised entirely of presenters and pundits with disabilities.
While there is still a way to go in terms of the rights of disabled people in China, the Winter Paralympics have drawn attention to a section of society that often goes undiscussed, validating the athletes who have truly earned their moment in the spotlight through their athletic prowess and perseverance.