Book Review

Leveraging disability sport events: impacts, promises, and possibilities

by L. Misener, G. McPherson, D. McGillivray and D. Legg, Oxfordshire, New York, Routledge, 2019, (PBK), ISBN 9780367520267; (HBK), ISBN 9781138090781; (eBK), ISBN 9781315108469

Jenny Hall Published online: 23 Mar 2021

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Once again a busy month here is the article:

Leveraging Disability Sport Events is a monograph founded upon a longitudinal research project of global scope and scale. The volume provides insight into the social and political phenomenon concerning how large-scale sporting events are used to influence societal structures to garner equity. Over three-years, the researchers investigated the Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 (G2014) and the Toronto Pan-Am/Parapan American Games 2015 (TO215) producing an in-depth case study ‘to offer learnings from other countries and contexts’ (Chapter 1, 1). The book explores how parasports are used for community development; strategic alignment between event strategies; and impacts and outcomes for addressing disability issues, such as accessibility, participation and policy. The authors challenge scholars, event organisers and governments at all levels to consider how events are positioned, used and leveraged to create positive social change pre, during and post-event. Through the lens of critical disability studies, the research makes a significant contribution by highlighting the imbalance of power affecting social and political considerations concerning how persons of disability access societal structures. Following Shildrick (2007, p. 233), the study is founded in neither a rights-based or citizenship-based approach but seeks ‘to extend and productively critique the achievements of working through more modernist paradigms of disability’ (Chapter 1). In doing so, this multi-disciplinary, multi-site and interdisciplinary project exposes how disability remains subject to systemic discrimination and oppression in large scale event production.

The researchers ask us to rethink relations between disabled and non-disabled designations in terms of ethics and ontology, exposing how sports events spaces and places are key sites of power that privilege dominant ableist values. Similarly, to Brittain and Beacom’s (2016) work on the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the findings demonstrate how persons with disabilities are included/excluded and expose the imbalance of power and privilege that reproduce norms of ability. The researchers identify a dearth in the literature that examines disability sports events and in particular studies that have applied a leveraging lens to understand the social impact of parasport events. Further suggesting that an absence of literature that explores how social change takes place in parasport events is compounded by a lack of critical scrutiny that leads parasports events to reinforce and replicate inequality in urban spaces. As such, the book contributes new insight on how city-bid processes over-inflate claims that disability sports events can ‘fix’ urban problems, yet they fail to substantively deliver on promises made and thus, legacy.

This volume provides key insight on how G2014 and TO2015 events were subject to systemic policy failure due, in part, to a lack of back-up with appropriate funding, resources and expertise for implementation on ‘promises made’ beyond the games. The authors argue that the strategy, ‘Awareness is Enough,’ failed to deliver and they therefore identify that strategy can only work if it is activated through appropriate resourcing (Chapter 4, 70). For example, leveraging change was too detached from the organisation and management of the G2014 event, which created tension between the rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ and the claims that the games had created and delivered enhanced accessibility. Moreover, key tensions between a welfarist, in contrast to entrepreneurial models concerning marketisation of disability sports events, were prevalent. Although mainstream media has significant potential to change perceptions about disability, the authors found that para-athletes were predominantly (mis)represented through ‘inspirational’ or ‘brave’, medicalised and ‘supercrip’ narratives. These narratives rarely showed impairment. This framing reinforces media-constructed realities that are divorced from the everyday lives of persons with disabilities and are in danger of commercialising the growth in parasports. The researchers suggest that such narratives serve to marginalise para-athletes by framing them as ’other’ and exacerbate social and spatial inequalities. However, it was identified that para-athletes had begun to resist such representations through self-generated social media content, creating a new paradigm for media circulation that challenges ableist mainstream media representations.

Through a comparative analysis of management models that integrate parasports into the main event, in contrast to distinct and separate parasports events that run in parallel, the merits and challenges are explored. Analysis of the implications and impact both models have across several domains is made including the effectiveness of management committees; policy development; representation in marketing and media and how this influences the attitudes and behaviours of spectators and volunteers; volunteer training and development and finally an assessment of the legacies achieved and to what extent. Notably the researchers conducted a large-scale survey of both volunteers and spectators. Using an adapted version of Scale of Attitudes Towards Disabled Persons (SADP) the researchers aimed to understand if there was any behavioural and attitudinal change because of the games. By developing a new global measure to analyse global attitudinal change the researchers found a significant difference between integrated and non-integrated models, with a non-integrated model having a greater impact. However, it was found that attitudes and awareness did not change significantly for either volunteers or spectators. The authors note the limits of their research in terms of its focus on para-events taking place in the West and the need for research that explores other cultures and regions.

Analysis of organisational management committees and functions showed that caution is required in the adoption of either model. Integrated models offered economies of scale and specific parasport management functions that had the power to influence from within. However, in G2014 this proved ineffectual when it came to leveraging the event’s potential and the authors argue that integrated models risk marginalising parasport aspects. The non-integrated model adopted by TO2015 showed that para-events have distinction and emphasis on legacy planning when organised in separate models, but risk exclusion from key decision-making. In sum, there is no clear approach, and the authors make a call for further research. In parallel with Brittain and Beacom (2016, p. 516) findings, both games showed agency in providing a platform for engaging in debate about disability issues but as shown ‘can create as many problems as they solve’. As such, each event was subject to systemic, political, societal and ideological challenges that no ‘Paralympic Games can in itself hope to counter … In a very real sense each Games is a child of its time’ (Brittain & Beacom, 2016, p. 516).

In sum, this book will appeal to scholars, event organisers and public authorities. It provides a critical analysis of how parasports events present unique opportunities to leverage social change for persons of disability. It does so, through highlighting key pitfalls and challenges for delivering upon the promises made to deliver long-lasting social change and thus legacy.


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