Rio Paralympics: does China’s dominance reflect a commitment to supporting disabled people?

16 September 2016

by Barney Cullum

China is — once again — out of sight at the top of the medal table.

Tian Jianquan and Sun Gang pose with a member of their delegation at the men's épée A victory ceremony of the 2013 IWAS World Fencing Championships 2013 at Syma Hall in Budapest, 8 August 2013.Athletes from the Asian powerhouse rarely take part in international competitions in the four-year cycle between Paralympic Games. So just how do they continue to sweep all before them when it comes to competing on the biggest stage of all?

Chris Furber, ParalympicsGB’s para-swimming performance director, has been analysing their methods and performances since the Beijing Games in 2008.

‘For one thing, the proportion of their population that is disabled is 65 million, almost as great as the population of the whole of the United Kingdom,’ Chris says.

‘Because of this population size they can perhaps run a more rigorous training programme than we can.’

‘If they lose 30, 40 or even 50 percent of their athletes on the way, China can still be left with enough athletes to compete.’

Stretching China’s potential medallists to the limit in advance of games is one effective tool, but their funding incentives model is considered a motivating factor too.

‘It is different to that of ParalympicsGB,’ Chris says. 

‘China puts the programmes in place for their athletes but they don’t actually fund them until they succeed.

‘When they succeed, they reward them with a life-changing sum of money not just for them but for their family for many generations to come.’

Chinese athletes in Rio have downplayed the significance of financial rewards however, seemingly oblivious to any bonus schemes that might be in place for medalling.

Tian Jianquan, who has a lower limb disability, won medals across two sports in Rio, boccia and wheelchair fencing.

‘There might be a bonus, but I don’t know how much it is,’ the double-eventist says.

‘There is some funding but [more important than that], we really treasure the opportunity to compete. We take it very seriously and we’re very determined as a people.’

‘Upholding the honour of our country is our top priority.’

I learned that Jianquan works for a disability organisation for his day job, so I took the opportunity to ask him what priority he feels is given to disability rights and access back home.

I’m told that the venues bequeathed by the Beijing Games — another reason for China’s technical supremacy here in Rio — are not the only legacy left behind by that event.

‘Access has also improved since then, year on year,’ Jianquan says.

‘Disability still needs more attention though', he says.

Chris has been back to Beijing since the 2008 games for other competitions, and agrees more could be done to promote independent living.

‘You just don’t see disabled people out on the street in China,’ he says.

‘We’ve become very blasé in the UK about how diverse it is here.’

Stigma has reduced in China, according to the United Nations. Before 1980, disabled people were referred to using terms like ‘can fei’, meaning ‘handicapped and useless’, say Disabled World.

China ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in June 2008, enshrining the principles of the convention into law.

And since 2013, with the arrival of a new Chinese Communist Party leadership, disabled people have slightly better access to the university entrance exam.

China is a vast country and so the picture various regionally. There are no universal standards for disability benefit/support schemes, with provinces and cities applying their own levels.

Leonard Cheshire Disability works with other organisations in China on initiatives which support disabled people into employment.

Barney Cullum is a freelance journalist — covering the games for a range of organisations — and is an external communications officer for Leonard Cheshire Disability. A version of this article also appears on Vice.

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