The USA: At the Back of the Pack

The USA is famous for its love of winning. Its history is filled with firsts; whether that’s being the first to put a man on the moon, producing the first nuclear bomb, ‘winning’ the Cold War, or winning at sport. It especially loves the latter, and has shown the world just how good it is in numerous Olympics and Paralympics for decades. That is until this last Olympic contest. As recently as 2000, at the Sydney Olympic and Paralympic games, US dominance seemed a thing to be taken for granted. It was a time when there were a few certainties everyone could count on; the Earth would rotate once every 24 hours, the moon would go round the earth, the Earth around the Sun, and if the USA were playing, they’d be first. How so much has changed.

Image courtesy of Jim Thurston, © 2012, some rights reserved.


Sport is loved by so many for its purity, its emotion, its excitement and its simplicity. It is the polar opposite of politics, with its shady deals, false promises and intrigue. Whilst both deal in races, it’s not hard to see why sport and politics try to stay well away from each other, yet so often they collide. Most of the time, rises and falls in sporting history are the result of inches, of seconds, of the so-close-moments. Yet when one nation has not placed anything other than first in every Paralympics from Montreal, 1976, to Atlanta in 1996, yet starts the 21st Century with a record of fifth, fourth, third and, most recently at London, sixth, there are questions to be answered. Politics had destroyed one of the most captivating races in post-1945 Olympic history. Is there a political answer to the USA’s rapid and sudden decline?

League tables can be misleading. Anyone who saw Manchester City ahead of Manchester United at the end of last year’s Premier League would have seen it as a defining moment when the latter’s dominance over its rivals had been broken. Perhaps it was, but it was also a result that was decided by a goal in the last 5 minutes of a nine month long season. Twenty minutes beforehand, Manchester United thought they had won the League. Paralympic medal tables are ordered by number of gold medals won. The individual has control over the inches and seconds that decide whether their medal is golden and not bronze or silver. The state has a far greater role in determining how many total medals their team wins, primarily through the funding they give, but also through the culture, organisation and support which the state fosters.  Yet even here, the US struggles, with rankings of third, fourth, third and fourth since Sydney in 2000. So why have the last 12 years seen such a decline of a sporting superpower? What is more concerning is that this slide is only seen in the Paralympics, whereas the able-bodied side of things saw business as usual for the States. This dispels any argument which suggests it is simply a case that the rest of the world has developed and caught up with the USA. In a piece of research carried out by LSE lecturer, Valentino Larcinese, the difference between Olympic and Paralympic rankings (by total medals) saw the USA at the very bottom of the pile[1]. Alongside this drastic drop is the US’s broadcasting record.

This summer, the US broadcaster NBC spent over $1 billion[2] for the rights to broadcast the Olympics and Paralympics, yet they have come under fire for showing neither the opening nor closing ceremonies of the Paralympics, nor would they carry any live coverage. In fact, their entire coverage of the Paralympics amounted to just four, 60-minute highlight shows during the games, and a 90-minute round up over a week after the Paralympic Closing Ceremony. When compared to the prime time coverage of China’s CCTV and Brazil’s Globo, and the 150+ hours and 100+ hours of live screening that Channel 4 and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation respectively provided, it is a pathetic effort. Yet this wasn’t just a one-off either, when it came to hours of broadcasting, the USA was equally bad in Athens in 2004 and only broadcast five times more for the Beijing games.

Sport is an entertainment industry; the sports which have the most following gain the most money and the most support, sponsorship and funding. Yet this offers no explanation as to why the USA trails far behind when it comes to the Paralympics. With viewing figures reaching 219.4 million viewers, the London 2012 Olympics was the most watched event in US history. London 2012 set out to change the way the world looked at people with disabilities.  The general consensus is that it achieved its objective – to bring about a “fundamental change in the way much of the world looks at disability”[3].  London 2012 was meant to be about more than just money, yet the USA failed to take the risk, thinking, one must assume, that there would not be the interest in disabled athletes. Had they done so, they might have been richly rewarded with high viewing figures, as was the case with countries around the world. It was a missed opportunity for the USA. As a petitioner for increased coverage, Damon Herota, put it well when he said, “the effect on people would be simply amazing and the barriers it would break down between able-bodied Americans and the disabled would be monumental”[4]. Some say that the Paralympics effect is precisely what the USA needs, with former US Paralympian, Aimee Mullins publically stating last year that disability in the US was in a position similar to where “race or gender was 50 or 60 years ago”[5]. This may be an exaggeration of reality, but there is definitely a mental barrier which needs to be broken down. Whilst the majority of the world grasped the opportunity to broadcast the games extensively and, by doing so, change the way they viewed people with disabilities, the US did not.

What is perhaps most tragic is that the USA actually fielded the largest team, but it obviously lacked the required support.  China, for all its complaints over its poor human rights record, burst into the top 10 at Atlanta, 1996, and has topped the medal tables at the last three Games. It has provided the support its team needed. The USA’s relationship with athletes with disabilities is clearly not in line with their normally proud human rights record. The fact that they are still to ratify the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is also concerning.  The disappointing reality is that when the world came together to change the way we view people with disabilities, the USA was struggling to keep up. Let’s hope they break their decade-long trend in Rio.


[1] Valentino Larcinese,Differences between the Olympic and Paralympic medal tables may tell us something about the presence and activity of Paralympic associations in each country’, LSE Blog, (11th September 2012)

[3], ‘London 2012: How the world saw the Paralympics’

[4] Gareth A Davies, The Telegraph

[5] Amelia Gentleman, ‘US Paralympics TV coverage disappointing, says chef de mission’, The Guardian, (31st August 2012)