Recently, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced that Paralympians will be paid the same bonuses as Olympians.

Specifically, medalists that win gold will receive a $20,000 bonus, and those that win a silver or bronze will get $15,000, and $10,000 respectively. Remarkably, prior to this announcement Paralympians received no payment whatsoever for representing their country and for their incredible efforts.

In his speech, Morrison noted that the Paralympic team won a phenomenal 60 medals and described this achievement as having “national significance.” It appears that the exceptional performance of our Paralympians has prompted this change to the funding model. But while this is a welcome development and clearly a step in the right direction, the reasons for this shift in thinking and change in policy warrant further consideration.

Firstly, it seems unfair and perhaps reductive to award the Paralympic team equal compensation only if they perform exceptionally as a collective. The team only garnered support for its campaign because it won a large number of medals that surpassed the collective achievements of our Olympians. One can’t help wondering had they not done so well would the Government have recognised their achievements and made this change?

On the other hand, this cannot be the only reason for the change in position as no such bonuses were considered in 2016 when Paralympians won even more medals – 81 in total. Therefore, perhaps the decision reflects more the thinking of the incumbent government instead of a more pervasive bias?

Either way, it is evident that such stark differences in pay partly occur because of deep-seated discrimination and that in reality individuals in minority groups have to go the extra mile to ‘prove’ their worth. Additionally, whilst our Olympians and Paralympians compete for their country, there is an explicit recognition that their individual efforts are partly compensated by the monetary award. The lack of payment undermines this.

Curiously, the Australian Government sets aside more than $50 million for high-performance grants that support both Olympians and Paralympians. But the fact that this budget is shared makes it even harder to comprehend why it has taken so long to recognise this disparity and attempt to correct it.  However, leaving aside for a moment the reasons why this has occurred, let’s consider what makes this form of pay discrimination inequitable from an ethical perspective. Broadly, there are two main reasons.

First, the pay bonus is not an additional sum of money that athletes receive on top of their salary. Instead, it is usually their primary source of income. In other words, it is not a bonus at all, and athletes that don’t receive any such grants or awards must rely heavily on family support or sponsorships following sporting events to sustain themselves. Therefore, in addition to being an ‘award’ that serves the purpose of providing open acknowledgement of achievement, the bonus is in fact a monetary necessity. Therefore, for Australia to preferentially award athletes competing in the Olympics suggests that Paralympians are regarded less favourably and may in some way be considered as less worthy.

If the difference arose purely due to insufficient funds and a limited budget, then the most equitable approach would be to share the bonuses and split them equally between the two groups of athletes. But this has clearly not been the stance adopted to date.

Instead, the bonuses are a clear example of pay discrimination and the marked inequity denies the Paralympians what they rightly deserve. After all, the Paralympians train and work just as hard as Olympians. Furthermore, finding appropriate training facilities and resources for athletes with disabilities is far more challenging and costly than it is for those without any limitations. Places with the necessary specialised equipment and ease of access are scarce. And so, if anything, the budget for the Paralympic committee should be larger not smaller.

Further, Paralympic athletes are subject to pay discrimination as they are denied chances to receive sponsorships. There ought to be additional enhancements put in place to ensure the success of Paralympians. Traditionally, the Paralympics have been broadcast at odd hours and the advertising leading up to them is comparatively modest. This is in part driven by a lack of advertising and compounded by broadcasting schedules and limited Paralympian visibility. This means that sponsors are less likely to partner with Paralympians and the majority never receive lucrative sponsorships that would not only help the promotion of them as a brand but also contribute directly and meaningfully to their finances.

For all these reasons, it is necessary that the government, advertising agencies, and Paralympic and Olympic committees examine these issues and devise means of alleviating the financial stress placed upon athletes. Currently, athletes who want to compete and succeed in their sports have no choice but to accept rewards that are below par. The most important reason however, as to why these issues need to be addressed is that the differential treatment of Paralympians perhaps undermines the core tenet of amateur sport – that competition should fair and open to everyone equally.

Paralympians should not be penalised just because they have a strong desire to represent their country and compete. The creation of the Paralympics was based on the need for equal opportunity – surely this should be reflected in how we recognise those that show courage in participation and excel.

Image credit: Nick Miller, Paralympics, London 2012

Join the conversation

What support does the government owe our Paralympians?