October 5, 2023 | OPINION | By Kole Petersen
Social media platforms have been utilized by corporations for marketing since the popularization of Myspace in the mid-2000s. While the modern technique of using memes and popular sounds on TikTok has garnered mixed reception, the Paralympics account is a recent example of an organization receiving extensive backlash over the last few months for its use of viral marketing.
But why exactly have the Paralympics, an event intended to promote inclusivity, experienced fallout for their attempt to market themselves?
The official Paralympics TikTok account uploaded its first video in February 2020, which merely consisted of a Paralympian fencer celebrating a victory. For the first few years of the account’s existence, its content was similar to that of the NBC Olympics account, highlighting the incredible achievements of Paralympic athletes with the occasional viral sound and hashtag thrown in for good measure.
For instance, the account’s first viral video in September of that year displayed two wheelchair basketball athletes maneuvering on the court to a viral remix of Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin.”
However, as time went on, the videos being posted on the account took an unexpected turn.
By 2022, the Paralympics TikTok completely shifted its content strategy; instead of showing the highlights of Paralympians, they focused more on using viral sounds over videos of Paralympians doing something visually funny.
As an example, one of the most viral videos on the account posted in February of this year consists of Australian cyclist Darren Hicks, who had his right leg amputated, winning a time trial race at the Tokyo Paralympics. However, an audio was used containing a viral song modified so that the only audible word is “left,” poking fun at the fact that Darren can only cycle with his left leg.
Due to the account’s controversial depiction of para-athletes, it is unsurprising that many on social media slammed the account for what they saw as downplaying and mocking the achievements of para-athletes.
A viral tweet lambasts that the account merely consists of the Paralympics, “mocking their own athletes,” and even shows a comparison between the Paralympics and Olympics accounts to illuminate the differences between the videos.
While the Olympics mainly posts interviews alongside unedited videos of incredible performances, the Paralympics focuses more on “viral content,” which some disability advocates view to be a method of taking voices away from the disabled athletes seen in the videos. Furthermore, due to the videos’ nature of making fun of disabled athletes, the word “ableism” is used frequently to describe the nature of the videos themselves as well as the reception via comment sections.
However, the response to the account is not entirely negative; some Paralympians featured in videos did not feel offended by their content. Darren Hicks, the cyclist in the infamous “left” video, told NBC News that he did not “feel like they are mocking me, rather just using a song which uses the word left, and I happen to be pedaling with only my left leg.” Boccia bronze medalist Andre Ramos also commented that disabled people making fun of their handicaps “is a sign that we accept ourselves as we are and that others do not see the disability as a difference.”
Additionally, the argument can be made that these videos can spark much needed discussion about inclusion in sport, after an initial giggle, of course. In response to the controversy, the International Paralympic Committee revealed that the account was run by a Paralympian, and in their statement, they reflected on the ability of their “edgy” content to benefit para-sport. “Importantly, we find that the account allows us to positively engage with younger fans about the power of Para sport as a tool for driving social inclusion.”
I am an intellectually disabled athlete who has swum competitively for over twelve years. I am an advocate for disability and neurodivergent rights, and I wish that para-sports were more positively respected in the public eye. You might expect that I agree with the take that these videos provide a socially acceptable breeding ground for ableism, but I believe that the marketing strategies that the Paralympics TikTok are using result in hilarious videos that ultimately benefit both the Paralympics organization and the disabled community.
While there definitely is a line that should not be crossed when making fun of disabled people, the Paralympics TikTok does an excellent job of making the humor in their videos about the actions of para-athletes instead of their disabilities. I do not get ableist vibes from the account; I see videos in which the viewers are encouraged to laugh with para-athletes, humanizing a community that is so often ostracized for their differences.
Additionally, many para-athletes hate that most disabled representation in popular media amounts to “inspiration porn,” which is why Richard Fox, the manager of the account, intentionally produces untraditional, funny content to share para-sport outside of the Paralympian bubble. “I wanted to showcase people with disabilities doing sport, but in a different way to how it’s been done previously.”
For so long the disabled community has been laughed at, so it is only fitting that laughing alongside disabled athletes is marking the future of para-sport education. The world of para-sport needs more positive exposure; the Paralympics has so long been under the shadow of the Olympics; the 2020 Olympics saw an average of 15.5 million viewers each night, while the Paralympics only received 14 million total viewers over its entire duration. Thus, the technique of the Paralympics TikTok of combining sports and humor should not be villainized as a method of ableism; rather, it should be applauded as an amazing way to introduce Paralympic sports to a wider audience.