Paralympics, gold medals, and Royal Mail stamps

Royal cipher used as part of the Royal Mail id...

I don’t often get involved in twitter or Facebook campaigns but yesterday I re-tweeted a message asking if it was true that, unlike the Olympians, Paralympic gold medallists would not be getting special stamps in their honour. This resulted in a flood of further re-tweets and so I put out a tweet of my own for Royal Mail to elaborate, then I went off to investigate. The Royal Mail Stamps and Collectibles Facebook page seemed a good place to post a message and so I asked again, did Royal Mail really mean to deny to Paralympians the accolade accorded their able-bodied colleagues? Frankly, I didn’t expect a response as it was mid-evening and there was another post there suggesting that deleting rather than replying might be more likely. Not so: a Royal Mail representative stepped up to the plate and gamely took it on. No, she said, the Paralympians would not have individual stamps made for them, they would have group photos instead, as agreed with the British Paralympic Association (BPA). So, that’s alright then: they get stamps, (they also get their pillar boxes painted gold – presumably not in some location equidistant from the homes of a representative selection), the BPA is in support, there’s no problem. Just a bunch of people without disabilities getting all antsy over something they know nothing about.

But the discussion went on all evening; the twitter stream came alive with re-tweets; the arguments began to appear in more detail. And this is where my concerns really lie. I’m not one for defending other groups when it seems to me they can very adequately defend themselves, but I do have a problem with dodgy rationales that seem to float atop a (think) tank of illogical and ultimately discriminatory thinking, whatever the group on the receiving end. You can see the thread here but for those of you who don’t use Facebook, this is a summary of the key points:

  • Royal Mail decided not to make individual stamps for Paralympic gold medallists because there would be too many of them. In Beijing, they landed 42 and RM felt they would not be able to deliver the over-night service they were offering the Olympians.
  • A stamp collector made the point that there might not be a market for so many stamps as the cost would be prohibitive. RM would make a loss as a result.

At first glance, this makes good business sense, and we know that the BPA has approved. But please take a closer look. Supposing the Olympians had been the projected heavy-metal winners, with the Paralympians coming up light?  As far as we have come in disability awareness and anti-discrimination legislation, I cannot hear the conversation that goes, ‘ Let’s do stamps for the Ellie Simmonds’s because they won’t win so many, but not the Chris Hoys – that wouldn’t be cost effective’. Similarly, I can’t imagine any comparable argument that black athletes are likely to be on the top of the podium more than white (if stats showed that to be true) so let’s exclude them; or that women should not get their stamps because they don’t run as fast as the men. I wonder, is there any other group that a decision of this kind could be applied to without there being uproar? And what about excellence? Much as we have trumpeted as a nation these last weeks, it seems it might be possible to be too excellent. Imagine not giving Paralympians their medals on the same grounds. Unthinkable.

So how did this particular thought come about? Out of the best of intentions, almost certainly. A brilliant idea  (notwithstanding its marketing potential) that was simply not thought through. If, when you think ‘Olympics’, you don’t also think ‘Paralympics’ then it is easy to see how this wonderful gesture could go so badly wrong as the inconvenience of this other group – and I use ‘other’ deliberately – becomes apparent. The compromise is tacked on; an after-thought that shines a spotlight on just how far we still have to go to make equality endemic and not just a clause in an Act of Parliament. If that initial gesture had included Paralympians, the conclusion may have been different. Maybe everyone would have been part of a group photo. Maybe the overnight production deadline would have been softened.  I find it hard to believe that this was part of the planning from the beginning because it fails logistically when the target groups are reversed. Why would the BPA agree? Why do any groups agree when the options seem limited? Maybe they took what they could get, and who wouldn’t?

Our Olympians have been honoured uniquely, historically, and – importantly – as individuals. Nothing should detract from that. Our Paralympians, what of them? An inconvenient afterthought seems the best of the possible reasons. Surely no one actually presented this option as the initial plan and everyone else believed it was just fine.

These views are my own. I am not speaking on behalf of any organisation with which I might be associated.

5 thoughts on “Paralympics, gold medals, and Royal Mail stamps

  1. The Rivendell Blog: I hadn’t known where this all started; It was with Steve Allman. Take a look at his very comprehensive account of the Royal Mail/BPA debacle.

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