So you are the host country to host a sporting event. It’s not going great, ticket sales are down and the eyes of the world are on you. So you have to do something, right?
Hmm. Perhaps this was how the meeting that lay behind the Brazilian vogue photo shoot in question. To promote the Rio Paralympics, non disabled models were photoshopped to appear disabled.
This has not gone down too well to say the least. I can see why. The Paralympics has arguably a broader significance than the Olympics in terms of promoting understanding of disability and the issues around it. The advert actually creates a barrier to that, obscuring disability, which isn’t something that can be merely airbrushed out.
A far more effective approach has been consistently taken by Channel 4 in the UK. Here the message has been about presenting athletes who achieve what they do, working with their bodies to achieve what they do in sport. This surely is a more powerful message.
It is troubling that a host country of the Paralympics can display such a lack of understanding of the meaning and spirit of the games just a few days away from the start of it.
An understanding of disability is help to be arrived at by a careful representation of it. Disabled people don’t have the luxury of choosing to be disabled. Every day brings challenges to negotiate that can’t be magicked away. The only solution comes in the form of hard work.
This is where the Paralympics has its wider social value, and why it resonates so powerfully. The games also has a vital responsibility to represent the broad spectrum of impairments that people have. Again, the Brazilian Vogue advert falls down here.
Some will argue that for the Paralympics, any publicity is good publicity. This may especially the case given the troubled build up to Rio and poor ticket sales. I would counter by saying in which other context would it be ok to sell a product by distortion? Perhaps if a better plan was devised to promote the games from the outset, such desperate measures would not have been required.
Personally I think the whole episode is in danger of being a wider reflection of the games itself: A missed opportunity. It is good that the photo shoot has been highlighted and that we can have wider discussion around it. Every empty seat we will see in Rio though is representative of both a wider failure to execute a properly planned games and a chance to learn more about disability generally. The chance to see anyone being world class is an opportunity that should never be passed up.
One only hopes that Brazil does a better job in responding to Paralympians. Come the games themselves, there will be no airbrushed representations available, which is an entirely good thing.