Episode 31:

2012 Paralympic Games—Are They Superhuman?

Date released: October 2012. Updated September 2017


In the lead up to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London the host broadcasters, Channel 4, ran an advertising campaign that broke new ground in marketing disability sport. The ‘Meet the Superhumans’ campaign certainly got people talking—see the campaign and read about some of the contrasting perspectives about ‘Meet the Superhumans.’

Putting this episode together was quite a challenge. Only because, at the time of writing, the London 2012 Paralympic Games has just finished and it would be very remiss of us not to do at least one episode together on the greatest Paralympic Games ever.

But there are millions of articles and stories about the Games that you can easily access—so what can we add to the mix? What can we say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? Probably not much—but, we thought this was at least an opportunity to try to stimulate your thinking about this incredible event.

Episode31—2012 Paralympic Games—Are They Superhuman?We were lucky enough to be there. What new superlative can we come up with? Not sure—but, in the words of our English friends—it was ‘TOTALLY AWESOME’! To get a perspective to how far this Games has advanced the Paralympic Games get this—there were 251 world records at the Games (compared to 25 world records at the Olympics). The Games were broadcast to over 100 countries. Over 2.7 million spectators attended the event and over $70 million was raised in ticket sales. Wow!

The media coverage in England leading up to and during the Paralympic Games was exceptional. Prior to the Olympic Games we (Peter and Dorothy) were taking a little holiday in Scotland, immediately after presenting at the International Convention on Science, Education and Medicine in Sport in Glasgow. We went to the Isle of Mull—a picturesque Island off the west coast. All the telephone boxes had pictures of Oscar Pistorius with the slogan “Bringing us all together for London 2012.” Must be the first time a Paralympic athlete (now an Olympic athlete too) was leading up a campaign for the Olympics and Paralympics together!

Channel 4, the host broadcasters, started the Paralympic promotions months in advance. The British press were way ahead of the Games too. As a consequence many Paralympians, including Oscar, Ellie Simmonds, David Weir and Jonnie Peacock were well known sporting figures before the Opening Ceremony even started.

Of course, Pistorius’s appearance in the Olympic Games raised preliminary interest and awareness too. So here, we’re going to take a look at some of that promotion and ask a few questions.

Meet the Superhumans—Really!

Weeks before the Paralympic Games started Channel 4 started their marketing campaign by showing a TV advertisement that had the slogan ‘Meet the Superhumans.’ Set to the music of Public Enemy’s Harder Than You Think the video has an interesting segment—as bombs go off, cars are overturned and expectant parents receive the news that nobody wants. This brief montage is book-ended by footage of athletes in training for the games.

Anyway, take a look… a couple of looks:

Channel 4 played this advertisement relentlessly in the lead up and during the Games. It is certainly different and generated a lot of chat and discussion online. What do you think?

They also used some strong visual images to go with the video for the campaign. Take a look at the eight images below by clicking on the first ‘Superhumans’ image below.

Images courtesy of Kuba Wieczorek (www.kubaphotography.co.uk)

The Inclusion Club—Episode31:

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Below are some of the thoughts from a small discussion group we had going at the time—between some very experienced and smart Inclusion Club friends. The discussion was kick-started by Eli Wolff from Brown University.

The Inclusion Club—Episode31: Eli Wolff HeadshotHi all… I’m not sure what to think of the term “super humans” … I like “super-heroes” but not sure if “super-humans” is helping to make a connection to mainstream society or just making athletes with disabilities still “other” and “freaky” !! I guess I have mixed feelings about this one… I’d love to hear your thoughts!!
—Eli Wolff


The Inclusion Club—Episode31: David Howe HeadshotThe word ‘super’ in relation to anyone with an impairment I actually find rather offensive… For me the words like ‘special’ and ‘super’ are completely inappropriate when referring to Paralympic athletes in large part because the media when they use them are being disingenuous.
—David Howe

The Inclusion Club—Episode31: Peter Downs HeadshotYes, mixed from me too. I guess we’ve all seen the super human tag before but shouldn’t detract from some great visuals. Never seen the integration of ‘car crash, pregnant women, bomb blast’ type images before—would have been good to have been a ‘fly on the wall’ when they thought that one through. Disability as a result of something dramatic or sad is not the best of messages I’d have thought—but, to be positive, it’s good they are trying something a bit different and you can’t please everyone.
—Peter Downs

The Inclusion Club—Episode31: David Legg HeadshotAs President of the Canadian Paralympic Committee I can recall having similar thoughts regarding both Peter and David’s comments when we launched two recent marketing campaigns. Suffice to say I don’t think there’s an easy answer. The challenge we found was trying to balance being edgy to capture attention (in a very complicated and crowded marketplace), respectful and true to your movement / organization’s values and vision. From my perspective I’m not sure we got it perfect but as Peter noted it’s hard to please everyone.
David Legg

The Inclusion Club—Episode31: Mary Hums HeadshotI would say I share similar sentiments as have been voiced here. I loved many of the powerful athletic images, but then along came the “super” tag….I do give them credit, however, for puting it out there in a format that will make people sit up and take notice. Took some guts to do that. We are having this conversation here and I wonder what types of conversations happened in living rooms and pubs immediately after it aired!
Mary Hums
The Inclusion Club—Episode31: Eli Wolff HeadshotFor some reason, I am more comfortable with super-heroes because we see able-bodied athlete superheroes, so nice to see athletes with disabilities as superheroes as well….For me, I feel that superhuman is more stigmatizing… I’m not sure, but I don’t think superhuman is attributed to able-bodied athletes except for when referring to doping or cheating…
Eli Wolff

The Inclusion Club—Episode31: Martin Mansell HeadshotHi all, this is a great debate which will go on for a long time. One of the issues which contribute to this is the way in which society sees disability. If we look at performance in relation to function then may be they are superhuman if non disabled olympians are ?
Martin Mansell



To add one perspective to this debate how about considering this next quote, from none other than British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose son Ivan had a disability and who died in 2009. Cameron was speaking just after the Games finished.

I think it’s been an absolute triumph from start to finish … I think back to Ivan. As every parent, you think about all the things they can’t do, but at the Paralympics they are superhuman, you see all the things they can do.
David Cameron

What’s Your Opinion?

We’re sure Mary was right—that there would have been a lot of conversations in pubs and living rooms when it went to air. Which, all in all, is a good thing that people are talking and thinking about these things.

What do you think? Do you like the Superhuman tag? Is it appropriate? Was the advert really positive or negative?



About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.