Less than a month after the 2016 Rio Olympics, Michael Phelps was on the “Tonight Show” cracking a raw egg on his forehead. Yes, the most decorated Olympian of all time lost to Jimmy Fallon, the show’s host, in a game of “Egg Roulette,” in which contestants pull and crack eggs from a carton containing eight hard-boiled and four raw. The first one to crack two raw eggs on his head loses. Not as tragic as losing a swimming race, of course. Still, it was disappointing to see that runny, yellow yolk drip down the beloved swimmer’s face twice.
We as a nation love to watch Michael Phelps win.
The obsessive fan culture that often develops around athletes is for the most part well justified. People love watching athletes compete at the highest level of sport because it is thrilling. But more than that, athletes like Phelps or Simone Biles appear to be superhuman because of their spectacular strength, speed, stamina, and skill. We marvel at Biles, a 4-foot-8 woman of pure muscle, flying higher and landing more smoothly than any other gymnast at Rio, maybe even in history. And at the same time we picture ourselves falling flat on our faces if we even attempt the simplest move—as if any of her moves are simple—from her floor routine. A huge part of our fascination with individual athletes is how we can appreciate how incredibly talented they are and cheer for them, not just because they represent our cities or our countries but also because they are phenomenal at doing everything and more that we cannot.
The difference between our interest in athletes and our interest in sports teams as a whole is that individual athletes become celebrities. Although it starts with our being in awe of them, our investment in star athletes goes beyond just watching their sporting event; we almost immediately want to know all about their lives, as we do with typical celebrities. Social media, of course, has revolutionized the public’s relationship with celebrities, including athletes. Phelps has three million instagram followers (not to mention that his infant son Boomer has over seven hundred thousand followers) and Biles has three hundred thousand more followers than he does. These platforms give us direct access to what these athletes are doing on and off the field, fostering our obsession with them.
The best examples of athletes that are transformed into celebrities, and how our obsessions with them grow and grow, are Olympians. The closing ceremonies in Rio are long over, yet it is still worth discussing the Olympics, since it is the preeminent space that encourages the recognition of athletes. During the Olympics, the whole world stops for a minute, forgetting ridiculous politics and horrifying tragedy for the briefest of moments, to appreciate the simple art of sports. More importantly, we come together to support a select group of talented athletes, whom we feel we get to know after learning their backstories pre-Olympics and seeing their successes and failures live. It comes as no surprise, then, that the best athletes, especially those that are from the United States, emerge from the games practically deified.
But there is a cyclical effect when it comes to Olympians and their fame. Take Biles. There was plenty of hype surrounding her as the Olympics approached. As commercials introduced her face to national television and newspaper articles began to predict her success, she was becoming a household name before she even touched down in Rio. When she started to win, the country went wild. The more events she won, the more she dazzled us, and she became an even bigger name; as a result, more people wanted her to keep winning. She emerged from the games, having set the record for gold medals in women’s gymnastics by an American, beloved by all (including—to the envy of many girls in America—Zac Efron). The hype post-Olympics is as important as, if not more important than, the excitement leading up to the games, at least when it comes to the athlete’s fame. Biles, for example, immediately embarked on a talk show tour, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and attended the V.M.A.s with rest of the U.S. women’s gymnastics’ “Final Five.” She is even coming out with an autobiography. Successful athletes like Biles are cemented as celebrities, branded by the media for the world to see.
But this phenomenon perpetuates a major discrepancy. the public eyes ignores a group of athletes that are very much superhuman: Paralympians. Having overcome intense physical and emotional obstacles, Paralympians are perhaps the most impressive athletes. They put in the same amount of time, energy, and sweat to compete at the highest level of their own sport, just as other athletes do. We do not follow Paralympians the way that we follow other athletes, though. The amount of coverage on live television that the Paralympics gets is not even close to the amount of coverage the Olympics gets. And there is no legitimate reason why this should be true. Anyone that loves sports, or loves incredibly fit and talented people accomplishing incredible things, should want to watch the Paralympics and be interested in Paralympians. But the hype and the coverage that would link Paralympians with the same fame and national interest is missing, and this largely prevents us from having the same fan obsessions with Paralympians.
Take swimmer Trischa Zorn, the most successful Paralympian of all time. Zorn competed for the United States from 1980 to 2004 and won fifty-five medals total: forty-one gold, nine silver, and five bronze. Amazingly, this record will most likely never be broken, as many, including Zorn herself, have acknowledged, since Paralympians today do not compete in all the races she did; therefore, any athlete’s chance of amassing that many medals is low. As if that was not impressive enough, for almost four Paralympic Games from 1980 to 1992, Zorn did not win a single silver or bronze medal. She was undefeated in each individual Paralympic race, earning twenty-five gold medals straight. Zorn first started swimming when she was ten, and just six years later made her Paralympic debut. She finished her unprecedented career at forty years old, winning the bronze medal in the women’s one hundred meter backstroke at the 2004 Athens games. In 1993, the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes named Zorn the female athlete of the year, and a year later the U.S. Olympic Committee named her one of the ten top female athletes of the year. In 2012, Zorn became the first American woman to be inducted into the Visa Paralympic Hall of Fame. At her induction ceremony, Zorn said, “I see people who come back [from military tours] with injuries and it really inspires me to make them appreciate what they have and to make them understand that whatever you set your mind to, you can do. U.S. Paralympics and the IPC have really made that possible for everyone.”
Clearly, Zorn is a true inspiration to other Paralympians and the disabled community as a whole, but she is not a household name. Although she has more fame than less decorated Paralympians, her celebrity status does not even come close to rivaling that of Biles or Phelps. Of course, she competed before the rise of social media, so it is harder to compare her with athletes who use those platforms to boost fan support. Still, the news media was a powerful institution and could have helped to generate the same kind of interest. Regardless, the spotlight was always on Olympians, not Paralympians. This still applies today with social media. Successful Paralympians such as Jessica Long, an American Paralympic swimmer who has twenty-three medals in total, has an almost laughable social media presence compared to popular Olympians. On Instagram, she only has six thousand followers, a number that does not translate to the same obsessive following that athletes such as Biles have. Social media is just the latest type platform in our culture that facilitates athlete-fan relationships, and it furthers the unequal representation and admiration enjoyed by Olympians and Paralympians. But the accomplishments that Zorn has achieved directly parallel the feats of the best Olympians: Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time with twenty-eight medals (less than Zorn has), and Biles is hailed as potentially the best female gymnast in history. In terms of rank in their respective sports, all three of these athletes are on the same level.
Naturally, many argue that Paralympians are not worthy of the same fame because disabled athletes cannot achieve the same physical lengths as Olympians and that this might even justify the belief that the Paralympics are boring. Others argue that following the Paralympics will take away from attention focused on the Olympics. These arguments, and other similar ones, are grounded in the misconception that only one type of physicality should be revered. They assume that there is only one kind superhuman. But Paralympians should not be considered as more impressive or even better than the Olympians. Furthermore, appreciating and following non-disabled athletes to a lesser degree is not the result of giving credit to Paralympians; non-disabled athletes are still worthy of the fame and respect they have earned. Instead, there simply needs to be equal opportunity for representation for all athletes, disabled and not. Neither group should be favored over the other. If fans are truly interested in impressive, elite competition among superhumans, especially during the Olympics, then there should be the same interest in all athletes no matter what sport they play or how their body works.
Ultimately, the difference in how fans receive disabled athletes and non-disabled athletes points to a problem of representation in the media. Of course, this is not a new concept; misrepresentation is a huge contributor to the differences in how groups of people are viewed. Ultimately the conclusion is simple: different bodies are valued differently in our society. What kinds of bodies are put on display reflect a bias for the beautiful, thin, white, and abled. The discussion of the media’s favoring of abled bodies is not as common as that of white bodies, yet it is a very similar issue at the core. Disabled bodies are not as socially accepted; therefore, they are not represented equally or even at all. This is not just a problem with athletes, of course, but with all types of celebrities, since the cult of celebrity in our modern society implies a notion of perfection. Ideal celebrities are people we should aspire toward, and such a relationship often implies the importance of body type, sometimes even over talent. Therefore, Paralympians are neglected in the public sphere as a result of a seriously flawed institution that emphasizes looks to a too-high degree. Consequently, Paralympians do not achieve equal representation, promotion, or celebrity status, and athletes such as Zorn are seldom mentioned.
That Paralympians make the same effort, show the same dedication, and display the same passion in competition as Olympians do but that they do not earn sponsorships or enjoy celebrity status to the same extent as Olympians do is illogical and pitiful.
We as a nation should love to watch all of our athletes win.