US & Canada

US Paralympic team - should do better?

Seth Jahn Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Seth Jahn is the poster boy for US Paralympic soccer

The US Olympic team swept all before it in Rio, topping the medal table. Why is it not the same story for the country's Paralympians?

It is early days, and there have been some outstanding performances, particularly in the pool and on the cycle track, but Team US is currently fourth in the medal table behind China, the UK and Ukraine, with some ground to make up.

Only once has the US Paralympic team taken first place, when the Games were held in Atlanta in 1996. The best they have done since then is third behind China and Britain in Beijing in 2008. In London 2012, the US team finished a disappointing sixth behind Ukraine.

One reason for this relative underperformance could be lack of funding. Unlike most other countries, US athletes, apart from Paralympic military veterans who get central government support, rely entirely on commercial sponsorship to pay for their training and living costs.

The US Olympic Committee (USOC) hands out about $50m a year to US athletes across different sports, raised through sponsorship deals with major brands such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Visa.

'Football is king'

It is a payment-by-results system, with some athletes in less fashionable sports, or those with a low medal count, having to turn to part-time jobs, or crowd-funding, to underwrite their Olympic dreams.

USOC money for training facilities and living costs for Paralympic competitors has increased in recent years but the direct support for Team US Paralympians, who number 289 in Rio, is still thought to be about $4m a year.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Tatyana McFadden was rescued from a Soviet orphanage

The Paralympics exist under the radar in the American media, with little mainstream coverage. Fans have to turn to a cable channel, NBCSN, or NBC's website to follow events. It barely gets a mention on the TV news.

This is in contrast to the UK, where the Paralympics has gone overground since London 2012, with extensive coverage on Channel 4 and the BBC.

As a result, public interest has surged. The UK tops the Google Trends chart in searches for Paralympics, followed by New Zealand, Ireland and Australia. The US is in 25th place, behind Singapore.

"There isn't much interest in the Paralympics in the United States, although I think there should be," says New York Times reporter Ben Shpigel, one of a handful of American journalists reporting from the games in Rio.

Part of the problem is that the college football season and the NFL are starting and in America "football is king," he says.

But even without these distractions, US sports fans would be unlikely to seek out Paralympic events on TV, he adds. The Olympics had "wall-to-wall coverage" and the big track and swimming finals were clearly flagged up and heavily promoted, says Shpigel. Only the hardcore enthusiasts will sit through "niche" sports on cable or online.

'Not about results'

But are the marketers and TV chiefs missing a trick?

Many of the competitors in Rio have extraordinary back stories, embodying the courage and heroism that the Olympic ideal is meant to represent - stories that would, in other circumstances, have made them household names.

The US 7-a-side soccer team has four current or former members of the armed forces in its squad. Co-captain Seth Jahn served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was severely injured in 2010, while supporting combat operations.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The US wheelchair basketball team is aiming for success

He looks every inch the all-American hero in the US team publicity photos, as he tells reporters about the bond he shared with his team-mates on the battle field and now the playing field - and how soccer "saved his life".

Tatyana McFadden, who was rescued from a brutal Soviet orphanage as a small child, is one of the most successful wheelchair racers of all time and is aiming to return from the games with seven golds.

McFadden is a relative rarity in that she attracts support from blue-chip companies.

Sports marketing expert David Abrutyn, vice-president of Bruin Sports Capital, says companies are alive to the marketing potential of the Paralympics - pointing to Adidas's eye-catching campaign that aired during London 2012 as an example of what can work - but it is not all about results for them, he says.

"The Olympic movement is always about participation and inclusion. I don't think winning is necessarily the secret sauce for raising the profile of the Paralympics."


He argues that there is adequate funding for Paralympic sport in the US - but the key to attracting more fans and breaking through today's "complex, crowded media world" is to focus on the "human" stories.

Like Ben Shpigel, he believes that a turning point could come on 2024, if Los Angeles wins its bid to host that year's Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will boost the profile of all home athletes.

But would a higher profile for the Paralympics in the US and around the world actually improve the lives of people with disabilities?

Laura Misener, associate professor at Canada's Western University, who has just returned from Rio as part of a long-term research project on the legacy of Paralympic Games, thinks not.

She says she was surprised - and impressed - by the message the organisers put across at the opening ceremony in Rio - the "superhumans" theme "showcased a different view of what disability can be about".

But although public attitudes may be changed there is "little evidence" of a knock-on effect in the workplace or society in general. It can even lead able-bodied people to "assume all disabled people are Paralympians," she suggests.

"So people will say 'you are just not trying hard enough - look at the Paralympians'."