OCTOBER 4, 2018 – Jenny Sichel is a competitive rower who won a silver medal at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, for which she was awarded $3,000. Had Sichel won a silver medal for the Olympic team, she would have been awarded $15,000.
No matter the medal, Paralympians until very recently earned only one fifth as much as Olympians. Outraged by this massive discrepancy, Sichel spread the word. She reached out to fellow members of Link20, a global social network of activists run by the Ruderman Family Foundation whose goal is to raise awareness of disability rights. Since this gap is the kind of discrimination that their organization is trying to combat, Link20 members across the country decided that they wanted to launch a national campaign. On March 5, shortly before the start of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, Link20 sent a letter to Lawrence Probst, the Chairman of the US Olympic Committee’s board.
“We believe that the medal payout policy sends a disturbing message to our Paralympic athletes, and the rest of the world, that some athletes are inferior to others merely because they happen to have a disability,” Link20 wrote. “We believe a message of equality, reflected in equal payouts for both Olympic and Paralympic athletes who win medals, is far more fitting with the ideals of the Olympic movement.”
Jay Ruderman, the president of the Ruderman Foundation, was equally upset. “It is disappointing, infuriating, and embarrassing that the Paralympics, an international platform that fulfills our greatest hopes for what people of all abilities can do and achieve, is a source of discrimination in medal pay for the athletes,” he said. “The USOC must stand up and correct this injustice and display a commitment to inclusion and equality of all athletes.”
Link20 worked hard to get the word out. It created and posted videos to its social media accounts, and personally reached out to members of the U.S. Olympic Committee, many of whom were sympathetic to their cause.
On Friday, Sept. 21, the U.S. Olympic Committee Board voted to pay Olympians and Paralympians equally, including retroactive payments totaling $1.2 million to athletes who competed in Pyeongchang in March. This announcement meant a 400 percent raise for thousands of Paralympic athletes, many of whom must take on other jobs in order to make ends meet. The news was greeted with widespread applause. “This is a landmark decision and moment,” said Eli Wolff, a former Paralympic soccer player who is the co-director of the Sport and Society Initiative at Brown University and co-director of the Power of Sport Lab. “We are seeing great progress toward parity, equality and social justice for athletes with disabilities in sport and in society. We still have a long way to go toward fully valuing and bringing visibility to people with disabilities in our sports culture.”
Even with the pay gap now erased, there remains a significant gap in coverage of the Olympics and the Paralympics. In 2012, NBC aired only 5 ½ hours of Paralympic coverage, none of it live, yet it aired 5,535 hours of Olympic coverage. Though this discrepancy improved in recent games, overall American media coverage of the Paralympics still lags far behind that of the Olympics, and of Paralympic coverage in other countries.
Despite lingering inequalities, the recent USOC direction marks a significant turning point. “We’re very proud that this story started with activists,” said Rinat Kisin, a program officer for Link20. “This is an historical moment … it’s looking at people with disabilities as equal – this is the message that comes out. We are very happy, and we support USOC for taking the lead.”