Like many other proud Australians, our eyes have been glued to the television screen to cheer on our athletes competing at the 21st Commonwealth Games, here in Queensland, on the Gold Coast. The Commonwealth Games have a long history and have many things in common with the Olympic Games. Since the first games in 1930, they have been held every four years, (except during WWII) to spread goodwill and understanding throughout the Commonwealth of Nations. This is the fifth time Australia has hosted the Commonwealth Games and we are one of only six nations that have attended every games. And, not to boast, we do top the leader board for winning the most medals. As a proud sporting nation, the Commonwealth Games are pretty exciting for us.
The Opening Ceremony on Wednesday night had a strong focus on Australian Indigenous culture as well as our relaxed Australian beach culture. We really enjoyed it all – the Indigenous dancers, the didgeridoo orchestra and the towel change rooms (after all, we all need a little help from our friends sometimes). We were particularly moved by the raising of the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag together – side by side.
The parade of athletes began with Scotland, who hosted the last games in Glasgow, followed by the rest of the teams region by region – Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Caribbean, and Oceania. There are 53 nations in the Commonwealth, but dependent territories are able to compete under their own flags, making a total of 71 teams. Of course the loudest cheer was saved for the Australian team, almost 500 able-bodied and para-athletes, walking out together – side by side.
The Commonwealth Games is not only the largest fully-inclusive international multi-sport games, it was also the first. Since 2002 the Commonwealth Games has been an integrated competition. The athletes march side by side in one national team. The events are scheduled together, which means if you are at the pool, you see both able-bodied swimmers and para-swimmers compete and receive their medals. And all medals are counted in the nation’s total.
For those of us sitting at home watching the Commonwealth Games, we can see the able-bodied and the para-events, side by side. We can share in the highs and the lows of all the athletes, side by side. The names of all athletes, able-bodied and para, become house-hold names. They are all representing their country and doing us proud, side by side – as it should be.
Now we enjoy watching the Olympics, both Summer and Winter, too. We especially enjoy watching the Paralympics. Not because we think para-athletes are somehow more super human or more amazing, but because they are great role models for overcoming challenges and embracing life, no matter what curve balls it might throw at you. But we can’t help but notice the great difference in media coverage between the Olympics and the Paralympics.
A local issue?
Now this might just be a local issue. Maybe it just reflects the attitudes toward people with disabilities in Australia. Or maybe it shows that the Australian media still has a long way to go towards equal representation. Are we alone in our frustration or is this a common experience world wide?
We have certainly come a long way in creating a more inclusive society. Not so long ago, people with disabilities were shut away from the world, excluded from education, the community, from life – they were invisible. Today people with and without disabilities learn together side by side, work together side by side, live together in the community side by side, and in sporting events like the Commonwealth Games, march and compete, side by side – as it should be.
But we still have much further to go
What if parents of children with disabilities didn’t have to fight for appropriate support? What if people with disabilities had better access to public transport, education and work opportunities? What if Olympic and Paralympic athletes marched and competed side by side in a fully integrated, fully inclusive Olympic Games? What if we could see equal representation across the whole of society?
All people learning, living and playing together, side by side. That’s inclusion.