Bending mainstream definitions of sport, gender and ability : Representations of wheelchair racers

Abstract: Inspired by feminist post-structural thinking and with a discourse analytic approach, this study’s main theme is gendered identity, disability and sport. It consists of four separate, but interrelated, empirical studies and focuses on two research questions. Firstly, how do female and male wheelchair racers construct and perform their identities? Secondly, how are female and male wheelchair racers represented in Swedish sports media? To answer the research questions, semi-structured interviews with wheelchair racers, and a critical analysis of sports media texts from the Paralympics in Sydney, 2000 have been conducted. In this dissertation the composition of unwritten regulations produced by the media texts, that shaped the practice of wheelchair athletes was conceptualized as the discourse of able-ism. Findings indicate that the sports media texts constructed the subject of ‘disabled sportsman/sportswoman’, which indirectly reproduced the conception of a copy and not an original. The exclusion was, however, concealed and neutralized through the regulation and differentiation that the discourse of able-ism legitimated. Although sports media still seems to reinforce negative stereotypes of disabled athletes, the wheelchair racers themselves are challenging the gender, sport and disability discourses and establishing new ways of being physically powerful and excellent in and outside the sports arena. In fact, when the athletes got the opportunity to make their voices heard in media, they re-dressed the twisted picture of wheelchair racing as passive rehabilitation training into elite sport. Consequently, it seems that wheelchair racing and its high status in disability sports empowers both male and female racers which increases their possibility to be represented as ‘real’ sportsmen and sportwomen. Finally, although, the athletes have shown that wheelchair racing has a given place in modern sport, ‘being able’ as an athlete and being a gendered individual are still strongly connected to the appearance and performance of the un-impaired body.