I had every intention of posting this earlier, BEFORE my trip to Vancouver, but I was a bit disorganized and wonky throughout the month of March and just didn't get around to lots of things. So a little late, I wanted to share a bit of information about the Paralympics. I was lucky enough to catch the opening ceremonies and two events (Sled Hockey and Slalom Alpine Skiing) after my conference.
I admit, posting info about an event on the day it ends is a little cheesy. Fortunately, this is a blog and not a professional publication in which case I would probably be looking for a new job right about now! Below is a copy of an article I wrote for an informational newsletter about the paralympics. Too late for 2010, but maybe early enough to get everyone thinking about 2012 and watching some alternative sporting events!
In early 2010, one of the largest sporting events in the world will take place in Vancouver, British Columbia. Thousands of elite athletes will gather to compete in a variety of winter and alpine sports. These athletes, who have trained rigorously for years, dream of appearing upon a podium to receive a gold, silver, or bronze metal. In may surprise you to learn, however, that these games are not the Olympic games.
On March 12, 2010, two weeks after the Olympic closing ceremonies end, the Paralympic Games begin. The Paralympics are a multi sport event for world class athletes with physical or visual impairments. There are six categories of athletes competing in the games: visually impaired, amputee, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities (such as dwarfism or congenitally malformed limbs), and other (such as traumatic brain injury or stroke). The paralympics are names for the Greek prefix "para" meaning "with" in reference to the fact that they run parallel to the Olympics.
The Paralympics got their start in 1948 in London when Dr. Ludwig Guttman, a neurosurgeon from the Stoke Madeville Spinal Cord Injury Hospital, organized a sporting competition for World War II veterans to coincide with the Olympic games. The Stoke Madeville Games continued to occur in London every four years as an international sporting competition open to war vets using wheelchairs. In 1960, the 9th International Stoke Madeville Games took place in Rome and became open to all wheelchair athletes, not solely war veterans. This was the first time the Stokes Mandeville Games, or Paralympics, as they were later renamed, were sanctioned by the Olympic committee as a parallel sporting event to the Olympics. In 1976, the Paralympic Games in Toronto welcomes athletes with other disabilities to compete and the International Paralympic Committee was formed.
Today, the summer Paralympics include 18 different events including rowing, track and field, equestrian, and wheelchair basketball and rugby. The winter Paralympics include alpine skiing, biathlon, cross country skiing, curling, and sled hockey. The 2010 games take place over a 10 day period, from March 12 through 21. The festivities include opening and closing ceremonies, sporting events, and cultural and educational forums.
Despite the recent increased visibility of adaptive sport (most notably the 2005 film Murder Ball depicting the US Paralympic wheelchair rugby team), most Americans are unfamiliar with the Paralympics. Comedian and Paralympic soccer player Josh Blue jokes in his stand up routine that he is often congratulated for his participation in the Special Olympics. (The Special Olympics, founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1962, are open to individuals with intellectual disabilities and strive to improve physical fitness, social skills, and a sense of personal accomplishment through sports and competition).
Unlike the Special Olympics, which are open to any individual with intellectual disabilities who wants to compete, the Paralympics are truly an elite event. Like the Olympics, the US Paralympic teams hold highly competitive try outs. Athletes may train at one of the 12 Olympic training facilities in the United States. Most athletes must juggle work and family life with training schedules of 30 or more hours per week. Athletic sponsorship, often a lifeline for Olympians, is extremely limited for Paralympic athletes.
Likewise, televised coverage of the Paralympics has been sporadic at best. Media coverage of the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing was available only as an online streaming video service through NBC affiliate Universal Sports.
However, the days of obscurity may soon be coming to an end. The United States Olympic Committe and Comcast Corporation announced the formation of the US Olympic Network on July 8, 2009. Set to launch in 2010, this network will be devoted exclusively to the broadcast of both Olympic and Paralympic competitions. Moreover, pressure has been increasing on major networks to broadcast the games from sources like Olympic Committee, Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and from grassroots organizations hosting online petitions.
Interest in the games is also increasing as the games come full circle to the games original participants: war veterans. In Beijing, 16 US military vets competed in the games; more are slated to compete in Vancouver in 2010. The US Paralympic committee sponsors military sports camps throughout the country to introduce veterans and military personnel with physical disabilities to summer and winter sports. Organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Veteran Training also assist disabled veterans in becoming active in competitive sport.
Dr. Ludwig Guttman died in 1980, but his dream lives on. The Paralympics has grown into the second largest sporting activity in the world. This international sporting phenomenon continues to inspire athletes, both disabled and non-disabled alike.
For more information about the Paralympic Games, visit www.USParalympics.org.