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Opinion: Money talks on Paralympics medals table

  • September 05, 2021

Are the Paralympics really all about sports, athletes and the lofty intention of celebrating a huge global sporting festival? Or is it all just about nations fighting it out to prove who is better and stronger — in both sporting and political terms?

When countries are only focused on where they finish in the medal table, it certainly doesn’t seem to be much about the beauty of sport. 

Let’s take Germany as an example: After four days of competition in Tokyo, the medal standings looked pretty bleak, with the country languishing in 40th place with no gold medals. By the halfway point, Germany had climbed to 24th — with two gold medals. The sports Germany excels in (and needed to in order to climb high enough in the standings to maintain its reputation) were still to come.

In the end, Germany finished in 12th place (with 13 gold medals) — meaning the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS) fell short of its goal to finish in the top 10.

Money talks

But what does the medal table really mean anyway? It’s crystal clear that the countries that pump the most funding into elite sports are the ones that finish at the top of the standings. In China and the United States, for example, Paralympic athletes are funded as full professionals.

DW Sports editor Melanie Last

German athletes, on the other hand, have to hold down jobs to help make ends meet and if they are to achieve any rate of financial security, they also need to attract sponsors. Sure, athletes do receive €700-€800 ($831-$950) a month from the German Sports Aid Foundation (Stiftung Deutsche Sporthilfe), and some even receive a basic allowance of around €1,200 from the German Armed Forces’ sports support program.

And, yes, without these, Germany would certainly not have as many gold medals. But one thing is clear: this financial support is rarely enough to allow an athlete to train fulltime like a professional can. This balancing act has an impact on an athlete’s performance. And when it comes to expensive, well-fitting prostheses made of high-tech materials or a high-tech wheelchair, athletes from poorer countries are bound to fall through the cracks anyway.

The question remains: how much is Germany willing to spend on elite-level sports? And what is its level of solidarity when it comes to disabled athletes? 

Has inclusion failed in Germany? 

For all the efforts to put everyone on an equal footing, German Paralympic athletes still do not have the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts.

That isn’t the case in the Netherlands, Germany’s much smaller neighbor, which, incidentally, won way more medals (59) than the German team. There, the athletes train in the same facilities at equally convenient times as their able-bodied counterparts — and have coaches who specialize in Paralympic athletes. 

What’s more, even child athletes, regardless of their sport, get equipment such as wheelchairs and prostheses paid for by the state. There, the financing does not go through the health insurance system, which can favor better earners. The idea of inclusion is obviously lived differently in that society — which shows in elite-level sports.

The Paralympics in Tokyo have again demonstrated that the promotion of disabled athletes begins in a nation’s society — with equal opportunities and solidarity.

This also raises the idea of a common global sports festival in the spirit of Olympic values — able bodied and disabled athletes competing at a joint games. But that is a topic for another day.

This article has been translated from German.

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