As the biggest ever Paralympics gets underway in London, French athletes are lamenting the lack of coverage their exploits will receive back at home. Some argue it is a reflection of the status of France's disabled population.
Organisers of the Paralympics are predicting up to four billion viewers worldwide will tune in to the action over the next 11 days but it appears few of them will be from France.
Despite London 2012 promising to be the biggest Paralympics ever staged, with over 4000 athletes taking part and almost 2.4 million tickets sold, the sporting festival has been largely overlooked by France’s mainstream broadcasters.
The only channel planning to show daily live action is the little known regional station TV8 Mont Blanc. The channel, based in the Alps, is only available to around seventy percent of the French population.
The contentious snubbing has not gone unnoticed in the French media.
“No arms, no media” was the rather blunt headline one website gave to its article on the lack of TV exposure.
Many of France’s 163 paralympians have expressed their anger this week at the lack of airtime their sporting efforts will be granted in their home country.
“We are complete sportsmen and women. It is disappointing that the coverage of our performances will be minimal,” Assia El Hannouni, who won six gold medals at the Athens and Beijing Paralympics, told Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday.
“This lack of television coverage really saddens us. It's like they are saying we don’t deserve it,” added Orianne Lopez, who will compete on the track in the 100m in London.
Online petition demands action
The state broadcaster France Televisions, which earlier this month aired around 16 hours a day of Olympic coverage, earning record viewing numbers in the process, has taken most of the flak for turning its back on the Paralympics.
Up until two weeks ago the broadcaster had only planned to air a brief highlights show late in the evening. But when an online petition demanding greater coverage garnered 17,000 signatures in a matter of days, the company buckled under the pressure and agreed to schedule a one-hour show in a primetime slot.
But considering Britain’s Channel Four is planning to televise 150 hours of live action, Germany’s state channels ARD and ZDF are reportedly offering 65 hours of live sport and China’s state-run CCTV has scheduled several hours of coverage each day, France’s mainstream coverage appears pitiful.
But everyone involved in sports for disabled athletes, known as Handisports in France, are upset over the decision by France Televisions and the country’s other private channels not to broadcast live coverage.
Jean Minier, National Technical Director of the Fédération francaise handisport is more accepting, pointing to the fact his organisation has only 50,000 members compared to the 1.2 million athletes nationwide.
“We cannot demand the same exposure for an event of this type,” he said.
The storm of criticism appears to have taken France Televisions by surprise. The channel’s PR team have spent the past days trying to stem the flow of negative press.
On Wednesday the channel passed on a letter to FRANCE 24, sent from the French Paralympic Committee to its director general, thanking him for the decision to move its coverage of the games to a more popular time slot.
Reflection of a wider problem
TV8 Mont Blanc, which plans to show 77 hours of live coverage, is however enjoying its position on the moral highground.
Channel chief Paul Rivier told FRANCE 24 the opportunity to show the Paralympics was too good to miss.
“We knew London were going to put on a fantastic event so we had to show it,” he said. “I don’t know why France Televisions did not choose to show it but it’s going to be a great festival of sport and we will broadcast as much as we can.”
Some involved in ‘handisport’ say the lack of enthusiasm displayed by mainstream channels for the Paralympics is a sad reflection of the status of France's disabled population.
“In France the accessibility of disabled people in everyday life remains a major problem,” said Gerard Masson, president of the FFH. “Hotels are rarely easy to access and neither are trains, which is in stark contrast to London where I never need to ask questions about accessibility. There a disabled person has all the means to be an ordinary citizen.”
“France has very good medical and social care for disabled people, but they are living in a comfortable cage”.