Art Beat: More Than Medals | WMUK

Art Beat: More Than Medals

Jul 29, 2021

The Oita International Wheelchair Marathon in Japan
Credit Dennis Frost

A Kalamazoo College historian says the Paralympics and disability sports can create positive - and negative - attitudes.


Dennis Frost is K's Wen Chao Chen Associate Professor of East Asian Social Sciences. at Kalamazoo College. He began researching a world-famous wheelchair marathon and disability sports for unexpected reasons. He's the author of More Than Medals: A History of the Paralympics and Disability Sports in Postwar Japan (Cornell University Press, 2021).

“The origins of the book are twofold,” Frost says. “I had a student in a class that I taught called Sports in East Asia. It’s a class I still teach pretty regularly, and I was doing a project on the history of the Olympics. This was in 2006. A student came to me and asked if she could do part of her project on the Paralympics. I was taken aback. I thought, 'How in the world do I not know about this?'”

Frost’s interest was piqued. It doubled as his son, who was born with a condition called spina bifida that often keeps him in a wheelchair, took an interest in sports for the disabled. Finding very little written about the subject,Frost took on the task of writing this book.

Credit Cornell University Press

Frost looks at the histories of the 1964 Paralympics, the FESPIC Games, the Oita International Wheelchair Marathon, the Nagano Winter Paralympics - and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. He offers insights on both the positive and negative aspects of disability sports: how they have helped raise awareness but also reinforced stereotypes about people with disabilities.

“These are sports spectacles,” Frost says. “They’re short-lived, grand, and spectacular, and everybody pays attention to them. But part of a spectacle is that you watch it and then move on to the next one. That creates its own complications. It hasn’t necessarily translated into direct changes.”

Frost says little has changed in terms of handicapped accessibility, even in the venues where the games take place. And he says it adds to the stereotype that the disabled should all be able to master physical feats like elite Paralympians, creating false expectations.

“There’s this idea sometimes that Paralympics are tied to something called ‘inspiration porn,’” he says. “People watch the Paralympics and know very little about the disabled. They think, 'Wow, this is so inspiring!' The common example of this is those inspirational posters you often see in someone's office. It will show a person participating in a sport and say something like, 'What’s your excuse?'”

The problem with such “inspirational” images, Frost says, is that they can lead to unrealistic expectations that all disabled people can achieve profound physical feats that, for many, are simply not possible, in the same way that most people who are not disabled can't become Olympic athletes.

Frost is also the author of Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity and Body Culture in Modern Japan.

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