25 September 2008

Olympics vs Paralympics: apples vs pears

With both the Olympics and the Paralympics behind us, Health24's FitnessDoc evaluates the success and failures of both, and explains why it's unwise to compare the two.

Last week saw the curtain call of the Olympic cycle for four years, and the Paralympic Games came to an end amidst a spectacular closing ceremony. It brought to an end the biggest Paralympic Games to date in terms of athletes, support staff, media coverage, and financial incentives (both direct and indirect for athletes), and it was a fitting end to a spectacle of sport in Beijing over the last six weeks.

The Paralympics are themselves a fitting way to end the Olympic cycle - I dare say that the original Olympic ideals are embodied more in the Paralympic Games than they are in the Olympic Games, with the triumph of the human spirit evident in every one of the participants of the Games.

That statement may incur the wrath of those who are intimately involved in the Olympics, and I certainly don't wish to do this. But the Paralympics brings something else.

Different, but equal - why we should avoid comparisons
Now, the key word here is "different", and that's really what we need to focus on, instead of focusing on the medal count, and the fact that the South African team did so poorly in the Olympic Games, yet managed an incredible sixth place in the Paralympics.

Why, South Africa has been angrily asking, is the Paralympic team so successful, and the Olympic team such a failure?

That's a difficult question to answer. Sometimes, if you ask a difficult question, you won't like the answer. This is the case here, particularly when certain elements of the media choose to sensationalise the issue.

Last week I was in the centre of just such a sensationalist storm when a daily newspaper quoted me out of context, claiming I criticised the Paralympians. Much of the week has been damage control thanks to that. But one good thing that did come out of the experience, is that it got me thinking about what we can learn from the difference in performance between our Olympic and the SA Paralympic team, and just how one might compare the two Games, if at all.

Success in both Games: a given, except for SA
South Africa finished 71st on the medal table in the Olympics, and 6th in the Paralympics. What of the other nations?

The graph below shows the finishing position of nations on the Paralympic medal table plotted against the finishing position in the Olympic Games. I've had to change the scale of the axes to fit it all in, but you can see that the correlation is fairly tight - nations which do well in the Olympics tend to do well in the Paralympic Games. China won both, the USA was second and third respectively. Great Britain was top five, Australia top six in both.

The green line represents where the nation would lie if it finished in exactly the same position in both Games. If the country is in the yellow shaded area, then their Paralympic performances are superior, whereas if they are in the orange, their Paralympic performances are inferior to the Olympic performances.

So the Ukraine is strong at the Paralympics - it finished 11th on the Olympic table, and 5th in the Paralympics. In contrast, Italy had a good Olympic showing - 9th, but only finished 28th in the Paralympics.

Clearly, the winner for big improvers is South Africa - 71st to an astonishing 6th. So therefore, the SA Paralympic team is deserving of all the praise it can get.

Why the difference? ?
What can we learn from the success of the Paralympians? Or is that the failure of the Olympians?

Here's where it gets tricky. South Africans have asked this question with the intention of labelling the Olympians as failures, and this is grossly unfair, because, and I'll be as direct as possible here... you cannot compare performances across Games. The comparison between Olympic Games and Paralympic Games is completely erroneous.

Why? Because they are at completely different phases of their lifecycles.

Sport undergoes a certain evolutionary process, which sees the number of competitors, the depth of competition, and therefore the intensity of competition change over its life.

Off the top of my head, the phases are:

Formation is the starting point, at which the event or sport begins. In the case of the Olympic Games, I guess we could argue the specifics, but I think it's safe to say that they began in 1896 - although in 2008, we could also say we saw the formation of 10km swimming, BMX cycling, and women's steeplechase events.

The Paralympics began in 1960 (officially), although they were really started in 1948 for soldiers injured in the war. It was in the 1960s that other categories were added, and the Paralympics really began.

However, the Games we see today really only began in 1988, when the Paralympics were placed immediately after the Olympic Games. That juxtaposition has driven the growth of the Paralympics, and so there is a level on which the Paralympics are much more recent than the 1960s. Look at the number of athletes and nations competing, and you'll see that the Games took off in the 1990s.

The next phases might be described as Foundation, Explosion, Plateau and Stagnation.

Foundation is really where the pioneers come along and chart the previously unchartered waters. We see this in sport all the time - there is a period of improvement which can be rapid or gradual depending on the sport. It is almost always followed by an Explosion in performance - the sport becomes popular, and more athletes turn to it. It gets more professional, training improves, financial incentives increase, and performances explode.

Eventually, it reaches the Plateau, where improvements are smaller and infrequent. Finally, there is Stagnation, where the sport loses impetus or requires modification to keep interest levels up.

This is a general illustration of course - swimming, for example, has recently undergone another explosion, thank to technology of swimsuits, pools and training methods.

However, the key point is that the Paralympics are in a completely different phase - they are still in the explosion phase, where performances are improving rapidly. The Olympics, on the other hand, are in the plateau phase, where the sport has reached a level of performance that makes it difficult to find further rapid improvements. A lot of this has to do with access and maturity of the sport.

Issues of access and maturation
What does this mean? Well, it explains why the margins of victory in the Paralympcs are so much larger than in the Olympic Games. In 200m swimming events, for example, the winning margin in the Olympic Games was just under two seconds. In the Paralympic Games, it was over six seconds. There were two races that stand out - one was won by 11 seconds, another by 12 seconds. Natalie du Toit, the athlete of the Games, won a 400m race by 25 seconds.

That is clearly not "normal" when compared against the Olympic Games, but in the Paralympics, it happens because we're still in that explosion phase. What will happen over the next 20 years is that more and more athletes will bridge that gap, and by 2028, we'll see a very similar standard of competition.

The other excellent example of this is the emergence of the Kenyan men. Beijing was really the first time that a group of Kenyan men dominated middle and long distance events (by dominated, we're talking five gold medals). We're accustomed to seeing this at the Olympics, but for the Paralympics, it is a major step forward, because it shows that access to the Games is increasing.

The fact that those Kenyan men broke world records by in excess of 20 seconds (in a 5000m event) is yet another indication that that Paralympic Games are in the "explosion/evolution" phase - such margins do not (or should not) happen in the Olympic competition.

So what will happen in future, as the Paralympic event matures, is that access will increase. More nations will send more athletes, and as a result, the "gene pool" of the Paralympics will begin to resemble that of the Olympics.

This will drive even more of an evolution in performances, and it will also increase the depth of competition enormously. We can therefore expect, as a normal course of events, to see that by 2012, there are already closer races and improved performances.

By 2028, I suspect that the level of competition will be very similar, and you will also have a very similar demographic of competing nations - remember, there was not a single athlete from the Caribbean in the men's 100m finals in the Paralympics. They dominated the Olympic Games.

Now, does this mean that competition is weak? Of course not. Paralympic competition can only be evaluated against previous Paralympic competition. And the level of preparation and commitment of the top Paralympic athletes is often equal to, or greater than, that of many Olympic athletes.

Therefore, with specific reference to the South African situation, you cannot compare the 30 medals won by the Paralympic team with the single medal won by the Olympic team, because those medals are won in a completely different context, against different backdrops of competition and with different criteria for evaluation.

Both medals are equally worthy, but when you start making the comparison between the two, then you paint yourself into a corner, because the reality is that Paralympic competition lacks the depth of the Olympics right now. That's not a bad thing; it's just a natural consequence of maturity, access and development issues.

There are, of course, numerous other issues at play here - the classification system of the Paralympics is fraught with difficulty. It's an almost impossible task to classify the different levels of disability without compromising the integrity of competition somehow.

Sport, at its very core, has "equality of competition" as its most valuable characteristic. We know this is never true, of course, but it's implicit on the starting line. The Paralympics has to manage the fact that this is never the case, and it does pose challenges.

Then there is the size of the competition – 4 000 athletes represents a large percentage relative to the Olympic Games.

Remember, only 10 000 athletes (out of 6 billion) make the Olympic Games, and only 300 win Gold medals. In contrast, 4 000 competed at the Paralympics (out of perhaps 100 000 million - a much higher percentage), and 473 gold medals are awarded. Purely by numbers, there is a difference.

So the point is: let's not compare the Games. There are lessons to be learned about why the SA Paralympic team did so well. But dealing with the SA Olympic problems is a separate problem. So perhaps we need to focus on celebrating the performances of our Paralympic athletes, who are worthy of that recognition, and then deal with the Olympic problems separately.

(Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, August 2008. Dr Tucker also blogs on


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