Five-Ring Circus

ESPN’s Lack of Coverage of the Paralympics Is Totally Indefensible

Oscar Pistorius
South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius runs across the finish line as he anchors his team home to win the men’s 4-by-100-meter relay at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GettyImages.

On Sunday, Paralympics superstar Oscar Pistorius placed second in the 200-meter dash, then accused a pair of fellow competitors of racing on unfairly lengthened prosthetic legs. A few days later, the South African hit the track again to run the 100 meters. Did Pistorius defend his gold medal from 2008?

If you went to on Thursday evening, you wouldn’t even know that Oscar Pistorius exists. In the hours after the race, there were no items about Pistorius on the site’s front page. (Among the top headlines: “Jets’ owner: Circus label is driven by media,” “Holmes: Tebow deal initially floored Sanchez,” and “3rd-grader sent home for banned Peyton jersey.”) This wasn’t an atypical omission: There was no indication on the front of that the Paralympics were happening at all. To find the results of the 100-meter dash, you had to mouse over the “More Sports” flyout menu, then click on “Olympic Sports.” At the top of that page is a headline—“Pistorius surrenders another Paralympic title”—that leads to a 100-word wire story. The Blade Runner, it turns out, came in fourth.

ESPN’s decision to ignore the Paralympics is perhaps less shameful than TV rights holder NBC’s move not to broadcast any of the games live. But ESPN’s lack of coverage is still indefensible. There is no full-time ESPN staffer—online, radio, or television—in London to cover the world’s second-largest sporting event (4,200 athletes, 165 countries). The Worldwide Leader essentially defines what is and isn’t sports news in this country, and the company’s call to disregard the Paralympics has relegated the event to eighth-tier status.

If my count is accurate, the ESPN family of Web properties has produced eight pieces of original, written content since the Paralympics began on Aug. 29: two blog posts by Paralympics fencer Cat Bouwkamp, four blog items by Grantland’s Dermot Hunt, one post in ESPN Playbook’s Tech blog, and a feature by ESPN the Magazine’s Ryan McGee on race car driver Alex Zanardi’s journey to Paralympics gold after a horrific accident. By comparison, the site’s Tim Tebow topic page—there isn’t a topic page for the Paralympics—indicates that there have been at least six original pieces of written matter in the last two days focusing on the Jets’ backup quarterback.

Rob King, the editor-in-chief of ESPN Digital Media, says he believes that ESPN is “honoring the event.” He notes that there are nightly highlights on ESPN3 and Paralympics images in online photo galleries. David Wetherill’s amazing table tennis shot also made the top spot in the SportsCenter Top 10. When it comes to parceling out coverage, King says you have to consider what the Paralympics are going up against: the start of college football and the NFL, the U.S. Open, the baseball pennant races, and NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup. “We’re making decisions all the time about things we deliver that can be excellent rather than just check the box,” he says. “We had to look at when the Paralympics were happening and where we can deploy folks.”

Even if it’s unrealistic to expect ESPN to be the all-knowing and all-seeing Sports Panopticon, it’s fair to demand more than what we’ve gotten from the media giant. The Washington Post had a great feature on a swimmer named Bradley Snyder who won gold in the 100-meter freestyle after losing his eyesight in a bomb blast in Afghanistan. The Guardian has a compelling interactive on the physics of running on blades. And most news outlets in the United States and abroad have run something on “boosting,” the terrifying practice in which athletes with spinal injuries harm themselves—that can include intentionally crushing their own testicles—in order to boost their heart rates and enhance performance. By comparison, ESPN has had no features on the triumphs of unknown Paralympians, no interactives, and nothing on boosting.

ESPN shouldn’t feel compelled to cover the Paralympics out of a sense of responsibility or do-gooderism. It’s also understandable that there’d be less coverage of the Paralympics than the Olympics—we’ve made the same editorial decision here at Slate. And the network surely faces coverage challenges on account of its limited access to video highlights, which have been parceled out primarily to NBC.

But outright neglect is not a legitimate journalistic strategy. Given the scope and importance of the event, the athletes’ remarkable stories, and the fascinating cultural and technological angles, ESPN surely could have spared a single blogger to cover the Paralympics. It could have asked Wayne Drehs, who wrote a bunch of great features during the Olympics, to stick around London, or perhaps sent Wright Thompson or some other longform wizard to do a couple of long takeouts on Paralympians. And at the very least, someone could have taken the five minutes to create a Paralympics topic page and a standing link on the site’s front page.

In the meantime, the Paralympics blackout has continued this morning, with no content from the games on the home page. Even on that hard-to-find Olympic Sports page, the Paralympics have been completely buried. The splash image at the top of the screen advertises a piece on Allyson Felix’s “four tips for a successful fitness regimen.” A wire story on Pistorius’ 200-meter contretemps is in the fourth position in that top promotional box. After this Sunday, the last day of the Paralympics, that story will likely disappear entirely. readers won’t miss it. Why would they, considering they never knew it was there in the first place.