Though I haven't watched any of the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, I enjoy the print coverage of the events, especially news about the dwarf athletes. At least six little people have participated as members of the United States Team. Between the six, they are competing in table tennis, track & field, and swimming. Most of the media coverage follows the two swimmers who have won medals, Miranda Uhl and Erin Popevich. Uhl has won at least one gold medal and Popevich four. Most of the stories report on Uhl and Popevich as athletes who happen to be dwarfs. Deeper into the games, as Popevich began claiming more medals, some of the media didn't mention dwarfism at all.
To me, coverage of the Paralympic games in Beijing represents what is best about media portrayals of little people. Too often in popular culture, whether the portrayal of dwarfism is positive or negative, the representation of little people is defined by the subject's dwarfism. When this is the case, it’s hard to separate dwarfism from anything the person does, both the accomplishments and the setbacks.
With the Paralympic coverage, Uhl and Popovich, just like all the other competitors in the games, are athletes who have trained their entire lives for the chance to race. Dwarfism is secondary, almost like the home town of an athlete – something to be proud of, but something that takes a back seat to the determination, skill and work that propelled the person so far.
The one bad example I know of came from the Sydney Morning Herald. On September 10, the Herald ran a story titled “Dwarfs rule the pool.” The story is embarrassing, first debating about what language to use to describe dwarf athletes, and then later wondering why other media doesn’t mention dwarfism. At one point, the reporter writes, “The BBC news reports on her, shown on TV in Beijing, made no mention of her achondroplasia, or dwarfism. What a pity. It makes her more interesting, not less.” Then later, “American women, Erin Popovich and Miranda Uhl, have won also gold, but a reporter for The New York Times does not mention their condition in his stories.” The writer suggests that other media is afraid to mention dwarfism, as if that would bring negative attention to the athletes’ stature.
But that’s where the reporter gets it wrong. For the Herald Reporter, just as it is often the case in popular culture, the story was all about the dwarfism. But the real story, as some of the Paralympics media understands, is about the person behind the dwarfism and their accomplishments.