The Paralympics and Race

If the Paralympics have changed the way people view disability, did the Games change the way we see race? asks Frances Mensah Williams.

Ms. Frances Mensah Williams

Like millions of others, I spent a good part of the summer glued to the exciting Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Packed with drama and human interest stories, only the stone-hearted could fail to be moved by the heroic efforts made by athletes who have sacrificed so much to take part and to win.

In sharp contrast to our highly paid footballers, who seem to have come off very badly in PR terms when compared with these considerably less wealthy competitors, we witnessed individuals who have spent years undergoing relentless training regimes, conquering pain, injuries and disabilities, and all for only a few minutes in a pool or a few seconds on the track.

But, increasingly, what struck me so many times as I watched the Games was race. I’m not talking about the kind of race run by the legend Usain Bolt, but about the sheer number of black and mixed race athletes that shaped the British team.  I couldn’t help wondering whether the crowds cheering them round the track would be just as cheery to them on the street.

Changing Perceptions

According to Lord Coe, the London 2012 Chairman, the Paralympics have had a transformational effect on people’s attitudes to disability. “I don’t think anyone will ever see sport in the same way again – or disability,” he said.  “I genuinely think we’ve had a seismic effect on shifting attitudes.”  

His view was confirmed by an Ipsos MORI poll after the Games in which more than 80% of those questioned said they now viewed disabled people in a positive light.

Perception is a funny thing and, to my mind, familiarity can often breed comfort rather than contempt. Learning about the people behind the disabilities and knowing their stories was, I believe, a major factor in changing perceptions on disability. Because knowing their stories showed that they are just like us – just considerably fitter.

By enabling us to really see people beyond their external differences, the perception of ‘otherness’ that breeds discrimination was itself disabled.  Today, the gorgeous Oscar Pistorius is an international icon and we have become familiar with the enchanting Ellie Simmonds, admired the speed of Jonnie Peacock and marvelled at the magnificence of David Weir.

Removing the Race Factor

This still leaves me wondering about race. If the Paralympics have changed the way people view disability, did the Games change the way we see race?

Only a year ago, London was under the global spotlight for very different reasons.  The riots that took place across parts of the country highlighted our divisions rather than our unity and brought to the fore questions about poverty, inequality and race relations. The questions appear to have been buried under the far more positive stories of the London 2012 Games but the factors that led to the explosive result of marginalisation and frustration are forgotten at our peril.  The riots in 2011 were, for the most part, not about race; but for certain sections of the community, the growing inequality of our society can often have a racial bias.

It’s not just about politics and politicians; employers also have a part to play.  New academic research has shown that the ethnic pay gap in Britain has widened over the past two decades in favour of white workers. According to researchers Malcolm Brynin and Ayse Güveli from the University of Essex, this is likely to be the result of occupational differences rather than direct pay discrimination.

Barriers to entry into higher level jobs could include discrimination in the selection process or the prevalence of traditional job choices within some communities, Brynin says, explaining that “the problem for ethnic minority workers is that they can find it harder to get into higher paid occupations.”

Proactive steps can be taken to address the reality of unconscious bias within the recruitment process, Brynin suggests. Having more ethnic minority role models in certain occupations and encouraging universities to highlight different career options are measures that could help redress the imbalance.

The Games – a Game Changer?

It seems then that the more people associate success with racial minorities, the more that these unconscious biases can be shifted. Not so long ago, my friends and I would laugh ruefully at how the fickle British press would embrace a successful Black person as ‘one of us’ and quickly tag a troublesome one as ‘Jamaican-born’ or ‘originally from Nigeria’ or whichever country was involved.

Today, Somali-born Mo Farah is accepted as being as British as he feels he is and anyone who says different risks the wrath of this same media.

October is celebrated as Black History Month in the UK and it has been an opportune time to reflect on how attitudes and perceptions towards racial minorities can continue to be improved.  Without losing the positivity engendered by the Olympics, we need to stay mindful of the challenges we still face in bridging the inequality gap and addressing the issue of race.

Remarking on the change in attitude that the Paralympics have brought, Richard Hawkes of the disability charity Scope said: “If everyone did one thing differently coming out of the Games, what a difference that would make.”

The Paralympics, at its peak, was watched by 12 million people.  If everyone who watched and was inspired by the athletes of colour changed how they view other people of colour, what a difference that would also make.

As we celebrate the Black heroes of history and of today, let’s hope that the goodwill that these Games and its inspiring athletes have generated lives on, and that the Olympic legacy includes a new way of looking at Britons with a different colour skin.

Frances Mensah Williams is the Editor of ReConnect and author of ‘Everyday Heroes – Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’. Available online from and on order through booksellers.