Paralympic competitors train as hard as Olympic athletes and frequently compete on the same courses, yet they get a fraction of the support and acknowledgement.
As the 2010 Paralympic Games get underway in Vancouver some hope that is starting to change.
Canwest News Service; with a File from Krista Bryce, Daily newsMarch 13, 2010
Paralympians don’t compete for the glory, the sponsorship money or the fame, because they don’t get much. For every multi-medallist such as Cindy Klassen at the Olympic Games, there is a Lauren Woolstencroft at the Paralympic Games.
For the record, Klassen has amassed one gold, two silver and three bronze in speedskating. Woolstencroft has won three gold, a silver and a bronze in alpine skiing while missing her left arm below her elbow and both legs below her knees. Both are amazing athletes.
But not for much longer.
The North Vancouver resident will contend for multiple medals at the Paralympic Games starting this weekend.
Make no mistake, Paralympians are serious athletes.
The 2010 Winter Paralympic Games figure to be a major coming-out party for Canada’s disabled athletes and their stories are as thrilling and inspiring as anything witnessed at the Olympic Games.
Starting today the 2010 Paralympics will be broadcast for 50 hours over nine days by CTV, an exponential increase over past Games.
Around Nanaimo, double-gold-winning wheelchair racer Michelle Stilwell is well-known, but there has been little attention paid so far to para-alpine skiing
hopeful Andrea Dziewior.
And across Canada most people would be hard-pressed to name a single Paralympian beyond wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc, whose 14 gold medals (including five in Beijing) are the stuff of legend. But what of Paralympic stars such as Woolstencroft and fellow alpine skier Chris Williamson? Or cross-country skier and biathlete Brian McKeever, who made history earlier this year when he became the first athlete to qualify for the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in the same year?
All are poised to medal at the 2010 Games. Canada is the reigning Paralympic champion in both sledge hockey and wheelchair curling, but can you name a goalie (Paul Rosen), a sniper (Billy Bridges) or a skip (Chris Daw) from those Games?
That’s all about to change, according to Gaetan Tardif, assistant chef de mission for Canada’s Paralympic team. Tardif is the man who wrangles the dozens of volunteers who work with the team.
And as interest grows in paralympic sports, some people are also asking if it’s time to combine the Paralympics with the Olympics completely.
Many athletes have shed blood and put careers on hold to be at the 2010 Games.
“The Paralympics used to be a bit of a cottage industry, but these days most of them can’t hold regular jobs, that’s how intense the training is,” said
Tardif. “They are on the World Cup circuit and travelling all the time.
“What McKeever was able to do shows how serious they are.”
McKeever won a 50-kilometre cross-country race at Canmore just weeks before the Games in his bid for an Olympic team position, besting an able-bodied field by more than one minute.
While he didn’t get to compete at the Olympics — the odd-man out when Canada could only enter four skiers in the 50-kilometre marathon — it was a groundbreaking accomplishment for athletes with disabilities. “It’s not just about going out and cheering for people with missing limbs,” Tardif said.
Stilwell is encouraged by the growing support and recognition for disabled athletes.”More people than ever know what the Paralympic Games are and that it’s different from the Special Olympics,” said Stilwell. “It has continually improved over the years, but there’s still room for improvement. Education has helped but really it needs to be saturated with media attention so that the athletes become more recognizable and have the opportunity to become household names.”
Tardif has worked with the team through half-a-dozen Paralympic Games as a physician and organizer. The experience comes in handy. When the Paralympic team landed in Athens in 2004, the basement room they were given for their medical clinic and operations centre had no electricity.
With less than 24 hours to get operational, they had to lash together electric extension cords with duct tape and draw power from neighbouring second-floor apartments.
“We soon figured out that tomorrow meant ‘never’ in Greek,” he laughed.
It was not the first time that duct tape had been employed by Paralympians, who have a well-deserved reputation for resourcefulness when it comes to getting equipment working — or making it themselves.
But in 2010, Canada’s Paralympians will have a hometown crowd behind them, the organizational support of Canada’s Olympic administration and the world’s best equipment, thanks to Own the Podium and the Top Secret equipment development program.
Some people are looking beyond increasing the success of the paralympic games to suggest that events should be part of the Olympics.
Dr. Robert Steadward, founder of the IPC, said Wednesday that operating the Paralympics at the same time as the Olympics would also create efficiencies for the host organizing committee and help further integrate people with disabilities into society.”I believe what we need to do is look at the full inclusion of Olympic and Paralympic (Winter) Games together. The athletes are still separate, but they can share the village, the transportation, all of the expertise that is here,” he said. “Why wait 10 days and have to re-energize the spirit that was in this city and this country for two and a half weeks just last week? If we could have been incorporated in that whole situation, which I think can happen, what a wonderful presentation.”
The Paralympics are dwarfed by the massive Olympic organization, which deals with many more athletes and substantially more funding.
In 2008, the COC paid out a total of $515,000 to reward the 34 Canadian Olympic athletes who won three gold medals, nine silver and six bronze medals at the Beijing Summer Games. The Canadian Paralympic athletes returned from Beijing with 50 medals, — 19 gold, 10 silver and 21 bronze — and received no financial reward.
Stilwell would like to see more equality for athletes with disabilities. “It would mean that our work and effort is seen as equal to the Olympians. It would
give more value to what we do and show they understood what we accomplish is something incredible,” said the two-time Paralympic gold medallist.
“But it is not the money that is important here. It is about respect as an athlete who works and trains as hard as my upright counterparts. It is about
being treated as equals for equal efforts, commitments and sacrifices to compete for the greatest country in the world, Canada.”
The Canadian Paralympic Committee has set a goal of placing third in the medal standings, but it will be difficult. “There are a lot of medals handed out
in the nordic events,” Tardif said.
Each event is broken down into separate categories based on the particular disability of the athlete. “If you go to the Callaghan Valley for the nordic
events you will learn to sing the Ukrainian national anthem,” Tardif said. “We have some good athletes in those events, but not as many as some countries.”
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