Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?

photo by Michael A. Clubine The 2014 Sochi Mascots enter the Closing Ceremonies.
photo by Michael A. Clubine
The 2014 Sochi Mascots enter the Closing Ceremonies.

Written by Michael Dougherty

There is a tendency sometimes to treat those with disabilities with kid gloves. Our fragile egos will shatter with one look and the surrounding world must tiptoe around us because we will inevitably fall to pieces. This is one of the many uphill battles unfairly put upon the disability community. How can we live with ourselves in an altered state, set apart from the mainstream,  and still maintain dignity?

The mascots of the 2014 Games, Snowflake and Ray of Light are not here to help push the needle forward.

photo by Katie Harris A Sochi 2014 mascot poses with volunteers at the Biathalon course.
photo by Katie Harris
A Sochi 2014 mascot poses with volunteers at the Biathalon course.

Designed by Natalia Balashova and Anna Zhilinsky respectively, and voted on by the Russian people, after which a team of designers worked to perfect the images. The mascots represent the dual regional aspects of the games. The vaguely Björk-like Snowflake stands for Derevnya, the mountain village where biathlon, alpine and cross-country games are set. The Ray of Light represents the coastal village, Ysadba, wherein sled hockey and curling take place.

Consider sled hockey. It is a sport predicated upon smashing into the other guy in order to score goals while using sticks to rocket forward and hit the puck. A sport with the possibility of the berserk happening surely deserves something more…intimidating. A fiery Komodo dragon, an eagle with the body of a giant squid, or a panther with a machete spring to mind. Maybe even a plain old bear, in keeping with Russia’s ursine theme du jour. And yet, the people decided that a childlike drawing of a angelic boy holding hands with an equally angelic girl would best carry forth the message: “We are here to take you apart for the love of gold!”

Really?

This adds to representationalism that plagues the disability experience. We are immature or childish, even dumber than the average person and, therefore, need to be patted on the head or reassured that it ain’t that bad because, “Look! Unicorns!” It robs us of the one thing that sets us apart as “greater-thans”: the ability to absorb great shock and pain, reconcile it, and move on to bigger and better things.

Perhaps, it speaks to a general naivete on the part of the rest of society. Specifically, the Paralympics have had a phylogeny of providing mascots that offer the same infantilization In fact, the 1980 Summer Games in the Netherlands – those very games Russia saw no reason to hold because there was no one to compete – used squirrels – squirrels –  to uphold the Paralympic ideals of strength and will. Even the United States, with its progressive disability rights, chose a smiling otter as the mascot for Salt Lake City. It wasn’t even holding the rock it would use to break shells in the real world. That would have been dangerous.

The otter mascot was chosen as an environmental messenger because that species had nearly died off in the region. That is a noble image for conservation., but has nothing to do with disability. Nor did the 2008 Beijing mascot, a multicolored cow. Granted, the cow’s name, Fu Niu Lele, (roughly “Transcendence, Equality and Integration”) suggested something about all of us hugging it out, but the message was carried on the back of what looks like a rejected children’s anime character.

What’s baffling is the mascots and their meaning are at a remove from disability itself. The environment is a worthy cause. Cows/oxen are sacred to Chinese culture. The old “inspirational” stereotype even seems to have missed the target. What this demonstrates is an unwillingness to look disability straight on, because it is messy, emotional, and hard to categorize. What we can’t talk about as a society, though, gets shunned and misunderstood, the very thing that the Paralympics has worked to combat. These mascots should represent the reality, both triumphant and troubled, of disability, instead of some ephemeral vision of “what should be” or “what we can’t discuss”.

These countries clearly had good intentions, so to uniformly balk at the larger world trying to bridge the divide between ability and disability would be self-defeating. It’s hypocritical  and gets the movement nowhere. Russia’s Snowflake and The Ray of Light mean well, but in a culture that needs and wants to evolve into a more inclusive one, more attention must be paid to what these images really mean and how their meaning may affect negatively those they’re trying to represent.

To reiterate, this is not a uniquely Russian issue, but we are here and the time is now for change. And that change can come and needs to if this community, which has struggled for so long for the rights and freedoms we all deserve, is ever going to keep their place at the table, whether in sports, politics or everyday citizenship. It’s important to be mindful that such cartoonishness carries with it a darker stigma. History has demonstrated the power of propaganda, for good and ill. It remains positive only if we question it and expect an educated answer to follow.

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