I watched a taped broadcast of the USA vs. Canada Semifinal Sled Hockey game today. It was fun. It was exciting. The USA won 3-0. They even showed some very brief highlights from other Winter Paralympic sports during the period breaks. All in all, I'm very impressed with NBC Sports Network's coverage. Even if I discount my "special" interest in the Paralympics, this is really better coverage than what we saw for the Winter Olympics.
Usually, media coverage of disabled people starts out empowering, and gradually backslides into sentimentality. It’s as if writers, actors, and commentators start out with good intentions, but can’t help themselves from falling back on the same old narratives, no matter who is being depicted.
With the Paralympics, it seems to go the opposite way. It feels like both announcers and the sponsors who write the accompanying ads featuring Paralympians, try at first to use the familiar sentimentality appeal. But they can't keep up the syrupy tone because the athletes are so capable, vibrant, and individual that they become full human beings despite efforts to pigeonhole them or make them faceless icons. Even when an ad series salutes Paralympic athletes for “defining themselves by what they can do, not what they can’t”, the actual athlete’s appearance and words are so inherently interesting and three dimensional that it becomes doubly clear how unnecessary that tired phrasing really is.
In fact, I would say that there is less sentimentality and cliché in the Winter Paralympics coverage than there was in the Winter Olympics last month. Maybe it’s because the athletes, themselves, steer things in a better direction. It is also possible that NBC Sports knows that the "tragedy to triumph" narratives they rely on to make the Olympics interesting to non-sports fans is problematic in a very particular way for disabled people. They still mention how each athlete became disabled, and when applicable, how getting involved in Paralympic sports helped them recover. But they seem to take care not to make these tearjerker stories. The stories come off instead as interesting and informative. We are left to decide on our own how and to what extent they are inspirational.
By the way, I never got the impression that any of the sled hockey players was "inspirational". They seem skilled, committed, and tough. The real narratives I picked up on were a bitter team rivalry between the USA and Canada, and the huge age range within Team USA ... from mid 30s to a 15 year old player who made two of the three goals.
In other words, the players' disabilities were the third most interesting things about them.
I'm anxious to see more!