The Paralympics – Should Deaf Athletes Take Part?

paraDid you know that a blind athlete at the Paralympics ran the 1500m event faster than the winner of the so called REAL Olympics. It is a true story and Abdellatif Baka actually ran his 1500m event at the Paralympics 1.7 seconds faster than the REAL Olympic champion, Matthew Centrowitz. It was one of the great achievements of the Paralympics.

I was enthralled with the Paralympics. I know we all scorn inspiration porn but I was truly inspired. Not because the athletes were disabled but because the skill of these elite athletes was phenomenal. The athletes at the Paralympics are not people that have overcome “obstacles” they are people that have pushed their bodies to the absolute limit. They are people that have developed world class coordination, strength and skill to be the very best at what they are.

By chance one night I switched the Paralympics on. I have just started a new job and am working very long hours. When I get home I tend to just flop in the recliner. I am usually joined by my dogs. The big one, Simba, jumps up and snuggles up to my left side. The little one Rocky, who I call Gaffer, tends to sit on my lap in between fetching me a ball to throw or his tug rope to pull on.

As Gaffer tugs on his rope, which I hold with my left hand, I channel hop with my right hand. Simba tends to just watch the spectacle with his head on my lap. As I channel hopped the blind 5000 metre event came on. I was immediately enthralled and dropped the rope. Gaffer was not too pleased.

It was fascinating. You see the blind athletes have a guide. The runner and the guide were linked together by a piece of rope attached to their wrists, not unlike handcuffs. As they lined up at the starting point I wondered how this was going to work. The starter pistol went off and I was immediately struck by the skill and coordination involved.

They ran at a frantic pace. The guide just a step behind the runner. I imagine the blind athlete counts his stride so that he knows when he is near the bend and the guide talks to him, letting him know when the bend is coming. Then of course the guide has to let the runner know when a gap opens, where that gap is, whether it’s straight on, to the left or to the right. And all of this is coordinated at great speed. It was truly elite sport at its best.

Then there was the swimming. I found the double arm amputees the most thrilling to watch. As the athletes walked into the event the first thing that comes to your mind is a question. The question is quite natural. “What happened to them?” You wondered if it was a car crash. Perhaps it was cancer or perhaps it happened at birth. It is impossible not to ask these questions because when you see something that you do not see every day the mind gets curious and you wonder. Nevertheless, you feel pangs of guilt because we are taught to focus on the person not the disability. And we should but we are only human and it is natural to be curious.

But when the athletes begin the race all these questions fade to grey. Watching them at the starters block is the most brilliant thing ever. For example they grab hold of a kind of tube in their mouth that is held by one of the officials. They pull their legs up to the wall of the pool and crouch ready for off. The starter gun goes and they leap into the pool.

What unfolds is an absolute world class display of coordination and strength. The athletes use every sinew and muscle in their body to propel themselves through the water at break neck speed. And when they reach the end they have to touch with their head … That’s gotta hurt.  It is simply a brilliant display of human endeavour, strength, coordination and skill.

Honestly the real Olympics were a bore in comparison. The Paralympics are what sport is all about. It’s not about money, these athletes get virtually none. It is not really about recognition because the Paralympics, although exposure is much better now, is still a very poor cousin to the REAL Olympics. It really is just pure passion, skill and grunt. The arrogance, the personalities and the egos of the REAL Olympics do not exist. It is all about the sport and the people. I loved it.

It’s interesting because Deaf athletes do not compete at the Paralympics. This is a source of much conjuncture. Many people in Deaf sport believe that Deaf people should be at the Paralympics. They believe there is more money and more exposure and that this can only be a good thing for Deaf sport.

Craig Crowley, a prior President of the International Committee of Sport for the Deaf (ICSD), is one of the strongest advocates to have Deaf sport as part of the Paralympics. Said Crowley in 2013, “I think the Deaflympics is sustainable long term as an isolated event, but at the moment we are going through rough waters.” He added: “Right now we are not getting the exposure we need and, therefore, we are not getting the sponsors we need. That is crucial because we want it to be a top event for our athletes.”  http://limpingchicken.com/2012/05/29/deaf-news-craig-crowley-says-inclusion-in-the-paralympics-vital-for-future-of-deaf-sport/

For people like Crowley it is all about the future of Deaf sport. Sponsorship and exposure will mean that Deaf sport can be sustainable. The exposure on a world scale at an event like the Paralympics would bring unprecedented attention to Deaf sport. It would also create fantastic awareness. The funding would enable Deaf athletes to compete and train at the highest level possible. It makes sense.

Even though Crowley’s arguments are strong there is still strong resistance to Deaf sport being part of the Paralympics. There are people who argue that Deaf sport does not belong in the Paralympics. They say that Deaf sport has nothing in common. The skillset to compete is not the same. Deaf athletes have competed at the REAL Olympics and there are only minor adjustments needed for them to do so like visual starter systems.

Mostly the argument is that the Deaflympics is one of the oldest sporting events in the world. It is a cultural institution of the World Deaf community and should not be tampered with. People fear that should Deaf sport be absorbed into the Paralympics then the Deaflympics will be lost. This is a very real concern.

Then of course there is another faction that say we could run the Paralympics and Deaflympics concurrently allowing the Deaflympics to survive. Whatever the answer the Deaflympics are struggling for sponsorship. Deaf athletes struggle for funding to be able to dedicate themselves to their sport to the level that is required. Something drastic needs to occur to ensure the long term sustainability of world deaf sports competitions like the Deaflympics.

Whatever the answer this should not detract from the fact that the Paralympics are a fantastic spectacle that showcase elite athletes at their very best. Long may it continue.

For Deaf sport I hope a solution is found. Deaf athletes are certainly as deserving as the Paralympians of the exposure and extra funding. Here is to a bright future for Paralympians and Deaf sport one way or the other.

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