Polish para-athletes -- Loads of medals, little coverage

In the recent Para Athletics European Championships in Berlin, the Polish team brought home the most medals. Yet these champions still struggle to attract sponsors and media attention.

Ada Petriczko
Ada Petriczko NewsMavens, Poland
Polish para-athletes -- Loads of medals, little coverage - NewsMavens
Natalia Partyka on the podium in 2016. Wikicommons

Why this story matters:

At this year’s FIFA World Cup the performance of the Polish national football team was unimpressive to say the least, but all of Poland watched the competition with bated breath. The players were everywhere -- on billboards, giving prime-time interviews and advertizing everything, from suits to yoghurt.

Wouldn’t it be a better investment of time and emotion to follow the Para Athletics European Championships instead? The Polish team won 61 medals in total, leaving their rivals far behind.

Although a 2014 poll has shown that 47% of Poles would like to follow news on para-athletes, they are nowhere near as popular in the media as football players or olympic champions without disabilities. And when they do get the limelight, it is often in a pitying, condescending manner.  

Commentators emphasize that sport is a great form of physical therapy and that it is enough to participate. Para-athletes are described as “brave” and seldom criticized.

Another aspect of this vicious circle is that the less coverage an athlete receives, the less sponsors are interested. At the European Para Athletics Championship, visually impaired runner, Joanna Mazur won the most medals in the Polish team -- two gold ones, one silver and one bronze -- and yet she does not have a sponsor. It is a fate shared by the majority of para-athletic champions. They cannot afford to practice sports full time and are forced to work on the side.

To some extent, the situation of para-athletes reflects the general situation of people with disabilities in Poland.

On the one hand, the public pities them. Research shows that over 50% of Poles perceive people with disabilities negatively -- as poor and in need of help. Yet this condescending attitude doesn’t translate into actual support.

When people with disabilities and their families occupied the Polish parliament for over a month earlier this year, the protest did not attract as many supporters as the demonstrations in defense of independent judiciary, not to mention the Black Protests. And the government? It agreed to fulfill only part of the demands of the protesters, ostentatiously ignoring them most of the time.

Details from the story:

  • The Para Athletics European Championships took place in Berlin from August 20 till August 26, 2018.
  • 598 athletes participated. They were divided into ten disability categories, including physical, visual, and intellectual impairment. Within the disability categories, the athletes still need to be divided according to level of impairment.
  • Polish para-athletes won 61 medals (26 gold, 15 silver and 20 bronze) thus leading the general classification. The UK came second with 50 medals and Ukraine was third with 49 medals.
  • In the Polish team, men won 36 medals and women 25.
  • The Polish Ministry of Sports pays the same amount of money per medal to para-athletes and champions without disabilities.
  • When it comes to media coverage of sport events including para-athletes, wheelchair basketball player, Bartosz Tarnowski, has been quoted saying: "Talk about us in the way you talk about champions without disabilities -- praise us but also criticize us.” Joanna Mendak, who won three gold medals at paralympics, added: “Stop writing about our courage
  • It is a stereotype that para-athletes perform worse than champions without disabilities. Natalia Partyka, Polish table tenis player, used to participate in both type of events. German long-jump champion, Markus Rehm, once scored 8.40 m by bouncing off his prothesis. With this result, he would have won all of the championships since 2004. However, the German national federation did not allow him to take part in the Olympic Games, argumenting that this would be a case of technological doping.
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NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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