The Paralympics are easy to ignore.
Absent the involvement of a celebrity, like Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee "blade runner" who competed in the Olympics, or race car driver Alex Zanardi, its events don't make the front page. There's no section for the Paralympics on ESPN.com, and even its official U.S. broadcast partner, NBC, eschews live coverage in favor of five hours worth of highlights, 90 minutes of which will air after the conclusion of the Paralympics.
Despite these challenges, something happened in London last week that should give Americans pause: Londoners watched.
More than that, they came out in droves, packing stadiums recently used for the Olympics and far exceeding expectations for merchandise sales — and this was no accident.
Britons tuned in having taken their cues from an organizing committee that linked the Paralympic and Olympic bids and budgets in the early stages of planning and an extensive marketing and press campaign that familiarized newcomers to the sports and their competitive accommodations. Over 11 million of Britain’s more than 50 million residents caught the opening ceremony, with millions more tuning in throughout the week.
It's likely that national pride was partly responsible for the enthusiasm. In addition to being the host country, the UK is considered the spiritual birthplace of the Paralympics, thanks largely to the work of Dr. Ludwig Guttman. The doctor, a German-Jewish refugee, was asked by the British to set up a specialist treatment center in anticipation of paralyzing injuries to servicemen during the D-Day invasion.
Guttman's rehabilitation techniques stood out at a time when many paraplegics led lives characterized by seclusion and medically dangerous levels of immobility. Based in the village of Stoke Mandeville, he sought to encourage more regular physical activity through sport, and pushed his patients to learn practical skills that would help them in the outside world.
In 1948, Guttman organized an informal archery and javelin competition. While early versions of his “Stoke Mandeville Games” exclusively featured paraplegics, later incarnations eventually morphed into the current configuration, in which athletes with a variety of disabilities compete in games running parallel to the Olympics.
True to its roots, this year, many competitors were veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Israel's first gold medal in the 2012 Olympics & Paralympics was won by a wheelchair tennis competitor and veteran injured during a recent war with Hezbollah.
The high level of competition also contributed to the Games' success. As in years past, numerous records fell, new athletes emerged, and the continued dominance of some of its brightest stars added gave crowds plenty to marvel at.
Sprinter Oscar Pistorius set a new world record in a 200m preliminary, only to lose in the final to Brazil's Alan Fonteres Oliviera, amid much controversy. It was his first loss at that distance in nine years. He later won gold with another world record at the 400m distance to add to his 4 x 100 relay gold.
British wheelchair racer and six-time London Marathon winner David Weir topped off a sweep of the 800m, 1500m, and 5,000m races with a win Sunday in the Paralympic marathon, despite coordinated opposition from an international cast of challengers.
Exactly one year after losing his sight defusing an IED in Afghanistan, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Brad Snyder won gold in the 400m freestyle swimming competition competing against other visually impaired athletes.
And China’s Women’s Sitting Volleyball team defeated the United States to win its third consecutive gold medal.
As impressive as the athletic performances were, equally noteworthy were the accessibility upgrades to London itself and the conversations they helped to spur amidst the competitive hubbub.
As the Christian Science Monitor reported, 66 of London's 270 tube stations have been made wheelchair accessible, as have the all of the city's buses and black cabs. Although some groups called for even further reaching measures, numerous renovations were made to popular tourists destinations and key sites in advance of the athletes' arrival, including London's Heathrow Airport.
According to the Guardian, Channel 4, the Games' UK live broadcast partner, was also home to a nightly wrap-up show “The Last Leg” in which comedian Adam Hills and guests reviewed the day's highlights in addition to answering occasionally awkward questions about people with disabilities from sources including Twitter. (Hills wears a prosthetic leg.)
But you'd have to search hard for evidence of any lasting effects from the Paralympic Games stateside. Despite sending over 200 athletes to the Games, the U.S. placed sixth in its quest for gold medals and fourth overall, well behind China, Russia, Australia, Great Britain and the Ukraine.
Interestingly, of the top six medal-winners, only the U.S. neglected to secure the rights necessary to broadcast live competitions on television.
Although NBC's anemic coverage was criticized by a number of sports columnists and media critics, aside from a lightly supported Change.org petition, those concerns weren't echoed with much force by a public preoccupied with end-of-summer plans, back-to-back political conventions, and a hurricane that threatened New Orleans. In response to the media criticism, officials representing both the Paralympics and NBC noted that 2012 represented a high water mark for television coverage of the Games.
In a more encouraging development, YouTube and the Paralympic Committee picked up NBC's slack, delivering a crisp, reliable streaming experience to U.S. viewers that far outclassed the network's cable-subscriber limited Olympic efforts last month.
YouTube also streamed and saved both the Opening and the Closing Ceremonies. The latter featured Jay-Z, Rihanna, Coldplay, an orchestra that included 17 musicians with disabilities, and a dance troupe from Brazil (the host of the summer Paralympic Games in 2016.) All in all, the Paralympic YouTube channel has garnered over 11 million views.
While those names and numbers pale in comparison to the investment in and response to the Olympics, the limited progress of 2012 is just one facet of a widening American conversation around issues of accessibility, integration, and sport. These conversations are powered by aging Baby Boomers, returning veterans, an increased awareness of the dangers of impact sports like football, and, in the case of wheelchair accessible swimming pools, sensitivity to the economic impact of federal regulations.
It seems likely that in this instance, NBC may have not only missed out on an opportunity to expand its brand, but as a nation, we may have also missed out on an opportunity to expand that conversation.
With numbers for its highlight programs still unavailable, the network's coverage raised more questions than it answered. After the runaway success of this year's games, chief among these questions is whether the American response to the Paralympics is a measure of our indifference, or a reflection of the market's future potential.
NBC's Paralympics recap will air on September 16th, from 2-3:30 EDT.