What to Know About the Controversy Behind the Paralympics TikTok

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The Paralympics’ audience has been steadily growing for over two decades. The International Paralympic Committee reported that 1.8 billion people from 25 countries tuned into the Athens 2004 Games and 4.1 billion in 154 countries watched the Rio 2016 Games; they expected 4.25 billion from 177 countries to tune into the Tokyo 2020 Games. And there’s reason to believe that Paris 2024 could bring in even more viewers, in part due to increasing media coverage and promotion of the Paralympics — including the Paralympics official TikTok account, which has gone viral on and off for the better part of the last year.

As social media virality is wont to do, the past 12 months have brought the official account of the Paralympic Games its fair share of controversy. The account is run by a Paralympian themselves and uses a humorous approach to content creation.

With 3.5 million followers and counting, some people say that the content strategy is spot on, garnering more eyes on the oft-overlooked arena of disabled sport. (While viewership for the Paralympics has increased over the last couple of decades, it still lags behind the Olympics. NBC reported that the 2020 Tokyo Games saw 15.5 million viewers tuning in on an average night, while the Paralympic Games drew 14 million viewers in total, according to WKAR News.)

Much of the content showcases athlete performances. But the account has been criticized for its use of trending sounds that can seem to make light of the athletes’ performance, or even poke fun at them. In one video, skier Martin France paces it down the slopes set to the tune of the Cha Cha Slide. A tense overtaking clip of hand cyclists racing through the road track is soundtracked by an infamous Formula 1 commentary clip. And a triumphant snippet of cyclist Darren Hicks uses a meme-ified sound that says, “left, left, left, I’m going to make a left.” Other clips show athletes making mistakes or crashing into one another.

Many members of the disabled community argue that the tactics used in the videos fail to help build wider public respect for elite disabled athletes.

Michelle, who is 23, told PS, “I’m scared it will reinforce this idea that Paralympic athletes are not real athletes. I think disabled people making jokes about themselves is great but maybe it would open the door for other people making the same kind of videos and not taking the athletes seriously.”

Tess, 32, agrees that laughing at ourselves feels good, but suggests that it gets complicated when the context changes: “I think humor is a good means to talk about disability and get the discourse going, but I think it’s more effective when it’s used by an individual in relation to themselves and their own story,” she explains. “But when humor is applied to someone else’s disability it feels like we’re laughing at them more than with them.”

The IPC didn’t respond to PS’s request for comment by press time, but addressed concerns of the account content to NPR last year, telling them the account is run by a “Paralympian who fully understands disability.” However, a ‘full’ understanding of disability is impossible given that there are no two people with identical experiences of disability, and that there are infinite ways disabled people experience the world, whether they are athletes or not. Therefore, one disabled person’s judgment on whether this content is offensive or not isn’t a good enough measure.

When comparing the Paralympic account’s content strategy to that of the official Olympic account, clear disparities are apparent. The Olympics account showcases athletes at the peak of their performance, offering insight into the history of various sports and interviews with notable Olympic figures.

There are a small number of informative videos on the Paralympic account, such as one explaining the rules of Boccia, a unique precision ball sport. However, the majority of videos use trending sounds and lean heavily on humor.

That’s not to say that all of the content on the account is offensive. In fact, most people I interviewed agreed that some videos felt funny to them and others made them deeply uncomfortable. However, it’s essential to consider the context in which these videos are consumed. Case in point: While there are fewer recent posts that use a sound or clip that directly highlights an athletes’ disability, there are still some — and these are the videos that tend to go viral.

For example, the Darren Hicks video, from April 2024, racked up seven million views and over 800K likes. A funny but admiring video posted a month later showing clips of Birgit Skarstein competing in three sports, set to a trending sound saying, “So you’re this. but you’re also this. And you’re this? How does anybody date you?” earned around 40K views and under one thousand likes.

We live in a fundamentally ableist society that already considers disability as something to be mocked or ignored. Do we need to fuel that fire?

Lucy, a Paralympian who competed in the Rio 2016 Games as part of the South African Rowing team, explains her complicated feelings towards the content: “It’s very nuanced,” she tells PS. “My team and environment were full of jokes and banter. We were friends and spent hours together with a common goal. We could make jokes about each other like that. But I would never do it with someone I didn’t know, it’s just rude.”

Can the type of self-deprecating humor that can sometimes grow out of a supportive and trusting community ever translate to a wider audience? Lucy is uncertain: “In terms of the videos, it’s the same thing. Who’s making the jokes? What is the punchline? Some of the videos are very funny, some make my tummy turn. I’m so glad that that format is getting views and getting people to engage with para sport, but at what cost?”

Could this new found attention end up having positive outcomes? Of course. But are those payoffs worth the risk of potentially amplifying prejudiced beliefs against para athletes, compounding an already present idea that they are less impressive than their able-bodied counterparts? It’s a question with no easy answer — and one that may take on new meaning after the 2024 Games.

Hannah Turner is a disabled writer and journalist living with complex chronic illnesses. Her writing focuses on disability, anti-wellness culture, and pop culture. Her words have appeared in many places, including PS, Refinery29, Mashable, and Dazed.

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