Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics
Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics
Amidst much controversy, the Beijing Winter Paralympic Games 2022 commenced on 4 March and concluded a week later. Here are some of the highlights.
Held every four years, the Winter Paralympic Games are a celebration of para-sports on snow and ice. The first Winter Paralympics were held in 1976 in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, 16 years after the first Summer Paralympics took place. Beijing previously held the 2008 Summer Paralympics and is the first city in history to host both the Summer and Winter Paralympics.
The Games saw over 550 athletes from 46 countries participate. Due to COVID-19, they were held in a “closed loop” system, like the Winter Olympics. This prevented contact between the outside world and the athletes, organisers, officials and media at the Games.
The Games began just a few days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. With many sport organisations and federations boycotting Russia and its supporter, Belarus, from participating in sport events, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) initially announced that Russian and Belarusian Paralympians be able to participate but only under a neutral flag. After much pushback from other athletes, the IPC banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating.
Here are some other highlights from the Games.
A call for inclusion and peace
Andrew Parsons, President of the IPC, opened the Games with a speech highlighting the power of sport in building a more inclusive world and fostering peace. However, many parts of his speech, including his anti-war messaging, were not translated for the Chinese audience since the Chinese government has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion.
The opening ceremony also saw Ukrainian athletes unveil banners promoting messages of peace, and they were supported by the delegations from other countries.
On 10 March, Ukrainian athletes staged a protest at the Paralympic village, gathering under a sign calling for peace. They also held a minute of silence for the victims of the war.
Glory for China and Ukraine
Host country China topped the medal table, a big feat for the Chinese athletes since their only prior Winter Paralympic medal was a gold at wheelchair curling in Pyeongchang in 2018. The Chinese contingent won 61 medals this time, shocking all. However, how well this achievement will translate to substantive societal change for the 85 million disabled people in China is yet to be seen.
While the country was suffering from a brutal war, Ukraine came second in the medal tally. The war has hit many athletes personally. Luidmyla Liashenko won three medals in para biathlon, including a gold. She had to pull out of the cross-country race after finding out that her home in Kharviv had been destroyed due to the bombing of the city. Another athlete, Anastasiia Laletina, pulled out from the middle distance sitting event after finding out that her father had been captured by Russian forces.
Ukraine-born American Oksana Masters became the first American to win seven medals at a single Winter Paralympic Games. She also has the honour of being the most decorated athlete at the Beijing Paralympics and the most decorated American winter Paralympian. She is also a summer Paralympic champion.
Ollie Hill from Great Britain won the country’s first medal in snowboarding, coming in third. This was his Paralympic debut.
Austria’s Aigner family won six medals at the Games. Aigner sisters won the gold and bronze medals in the women’s para Alpine skiing event – the gold went to Veronika Aigner and bronze to her younger sister Barbra. Veronika is guided by their elder sister Elisabeth Aigner. Barbara’s twin sibling, Johannes Aigner, reigned in the men’s events, winning four medals at these Games, including two gold.
Brian McKeever of Canada made history when he won the men’s vision-impaired middle distance cross-country race – with this win, he became the second person to win 16 career gold medals, tying with German para skier Gerd Schöfelder. McKeever, who has not lost an individual race at the Paralympics since 2006, now has 20 Paralympic medals overall.
Fighting to compete
The road to the Paralympics was not easy for snowboarders Cecile Hernandez and Brenna Huckaby, both of whom had to fight a legal battle to be allowed to compete at the Paralympics.
They were forced to take legal action after the IPC removed their classification in 2019, and were initially not allowed to ‘compete up.’ Upon winning their cases, the athletes could compete with others who had a competitive advantage, but both ended up at the podium with Hernandez winning her first gold.
Weather conditions at the Winter Paralympics were uncertain at times, with organisers having to reschedule many events. However, even with earlier start times, the warmer temperatures meant that the artificial snow was melting for the Alpine ski event, making it tougher for athletes. What does climate change mean for the future of the Paralympics This remains to be seen.
Gender equality – a distant dream?
The Beijing Paralympics saw a record number of women Paralympians – 138, a five-person increase compared to Pyeongchang – but gender equality at the Paralympic Games remain a distant dream. With 564 total athletes competing at the Games, the ratio of female to male athletes remains dismal, indicating the multiple layers of marginalisation that female para athletes face.
The institutional nature of gender discrimination in para sports is most apparent in the case of sled hockey. Though it originally was a mixed-gender event when it debuted in 1994 at Lillehammer, it became a men’s only event over the years. This led to the expulsion of Amanda Ahrnborn from the event at the 2006 Torino Winter Paralympics. This controversy led to the reversion of the event to being mixed-gender. However, since then, only two other women have competed in sled hocky – Norway’s Lena Schroeder at the 2010 Vancouver Games and China’s Yu Jing at this year’s Games. This year, of the 118 sled hockey players, 117 were male.
Of all the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Winter Paralympics has the lowest gender ratio, and this is indicative of the fewer chances that disabled women and girls get in playing sport. Increased participation, however, is only the first step towards gender equality in sports.
Passing on the torch
The next Winter Paralympic Games will be held in 2026 in Milan-Cortina. The two cities will co-host the Games – while Cortina d’Ampezzo previously hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956, 2026 will be the first time it will host a Paralympics, which began in 1976.