The 2024 Paralympics are still well over a year away. Yet, thanks to trending TikTok clips, the upcoming competition is already dominating news headlines and social media feeds. That is because the Paralympic TikTok account, run by the official International Paralympic Committee (IPC), is posting content that some describe as insensitive and even outright offensive.
Many of the social media posts shared on the Paralympic TikTok account feature snippets of athletic performances by adaptive competitors that are synchronized to songs and soundbites. But we are not talking about motivational music montages dubbed to iconic tunes like the Rocky soundtrack. Rather, clips present para-athletes falling, flubbing up and synched to silly noises. So, the question is: Are these viral snippets just fun or are they actually poking fun?
Content of Paralympic TikTok Account
One video, titled “He said right foot leap,” features Zhong Zhiqiang, a long jumper with limb difference. The audio echoes “I said right foot, I said right foot…” repeatedly as the track-and-fielder runs and leaps with one limb – his right foot. Similarly, another video shows cyclist Darren Hicks, whose right leg was amputated following an auto crash, pedaling to a repetitive “Left. Left. Left.” audio track.
Garnering a whopping 9.8 million views, a clip synchronized to TV’s Family Guy version of The Bangles hit “Walk Like An Egyptian,” shows a wheelchair basketball player falling backward onto the court. As she crashes down to the floor, the tweaked lyrics say, “My back is hurting from the chair I’m sitting on… if I lay down flat on the floor it usually kinda fixes it.” One offended commenter asked, “Do you receive any guidance on what to post or go through any approval process or do you just get to post anything?” This inquisitive comment received more than 6,000 likes by others that, likewise, seemed taken aback by the provocative social post. Yet, numerous other followers of the Paralympic TikTok account commented with laughing emojis and jokes.
The Paralympic TikTok account, which has 3.4 million followers, has been active since 2020 but only recently garnered more attention — both backlash and applause — on TikTok as well as its other social platforms, like Twitter. But some say the controversial posts are intentional, basically an “all press is good press” public relations strategy.
Funny or Poking Fun?
When questioned about its unconventional social media posts (including growing criticism), an IPC spokesperson told NPR that the Paralympic TikTok account is, in fact, operated by a “Paralympian who fully understands disability.” This response implied that much of the disapproval could be chalked up as over-reaction by those who aren’t even part of the disability community.
“We have created a strong following through edgy and unique content that allows us to educate an audience who might be less aware of Paralympic sport and the achievements of our athletes,” the spokesperson told NPR. “We appreciate that not everyone will like the content and sometimes we don’t get it right, but we do closely monitor posts, always converse in reactions to them, and learn from all feedback.”
Para-triathlete Brad Snyder alluded that he understood this marketing tactic. Snyder, who was blinded by an IED during war combat, was shown in a clip titled “Para Triathlon is swimming, cycling and air piano,” which has been viewed 2.4 million times. As his guide leads him from the water to his bicycle, the Paralympic TikTok account describes his reaching motion as “air piano.” Snyder told CNN that he considers the clip to be funny and reposted it at the time. Though, he admits that there is a fine line between being cheeky and disrespectful but sees how the posts could stir up much needed conversations surrounding disability and inclusion – perhaps, in this case, after an initial giggle.
“And now let’s have a conversation about what my experience might be like and what my challenges might be and how you, as an able-bodied person, might be able to understand and accommodate me in various ways or help me cross the street or help me without pitying me and those sorts of things,” Snyder offered.
But it seems like the Paralympic TikTok account might not be maximizing its chances to educate followers. When commenters pushed back on the “air piano” comparison, the IPC merely replied, “He’s a great pianist, and that guide is a great conductor.” But maybe they could have also offered genuine accolades about Snyder’s athletic skills! And when asked who oversees the Paralympic TikTok account, the administrator jokingly answered, “The ghost of Beethoven,” which definitely missed the opportunity to declare the Paralympics legitimacy and its importance.
In a more recent edited snippet titled “Blind swimmers getting bopped,” para-swimmers are thumped on the head to audio associated with Hasbro’s Bop-It toy. At first glance, one might assume the video is taunting the athletes by bopping them on the noggin with foam-tipped poles – sort of mimicking the Whack-a-Mole game technique. However, as the Paralympic TikTok account explains in the comments section of the post, “This is how blind and vision impaired swimmers are notified they are close to the wall. A bop on the head.” Is that short explanation enough to bolster the kind of awareness and attention that the IPC hopes to achieve?
The IPC kind of appears to be reaching to fill a significant gap among viewers. Statistics from the 2020 Olympics, for instance, averaged 15.5 million per night, whereas a total of 14 million tuned into the entire course of the 2020 Paralympics. Will provocative TikTok posts move the needle enough to increase viewership of the next Paralympics?
Not everyone thinks the “edgy” style of social engagement is effective or appropriate. Soccer player Sean Jackson, an amputee who uses crutches on the field, told the BBC that he’s disappointed that the Paralympics TikTok account seems to be strangely highlighting athletes’ missteps and mistakes instead of their incredible talents and achievements. “They just choose to sort of mock them and turn them into memes and try and use their sport to entertain people from a comedic point of view,” he said.
In contrast, André Ramos, a medalist in boccia who also was featured in a post on the Paralympic TikTok account, doesn’t deem the content as offensive. He explained to NBC that “making fun with our handicaps is a sign that we accept ourselves as we are and that others do not see the disability as a difference.” In the same report, Hicks, the “Left. Left. Left.” cyclist, has expressed more of a neutral feeling, stating that he basically thought the audio dubbed to his left-footed pedaling was matter-of-factly used.
The upcoming Paralympic Games, which will feature twenty-two different sports, is set for Paris with competition running August 28 to September 8, 2024. Do you think the Paralympic TikTok account is producing acceptable humor to garner attention for and raise awareness of competitive adaptive sports (as they proclaim to be doing)? As members (or allies) of the disability community, share your thoughts with AmeriDisability on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. [We’re not on TikTok just yet! Are you?]