The Truths & Myths of the Paralympic Games: Part 1
Over my 15 years of competing as an Elite Para Athlete I have learned a lot about what the Paralympic Games are and are not as well as the perception among societyregarding the Paralympic Games. This blog series is meant to serve as an educational and informative tool that will clarify whatPara Sports and the Paralympic Games are all about. This blog series will disclose aspects that may be shocking to some. Some of the topics may stir up controversy and backlash but I believe if people look at these issues from a non-biased viewpoint this series will disclose the truth of Para Sports. You can always choose to believe what you hear or find another option that is what you want to hear but I believe that the information that is covered in this series is as close to the facts as you will find. I will start the series with more basic and broad topics then narrow down to more specific topics that focus on individual classifications or specific sports. To all those that feel as though they are fairly well versed in Paralympic sport just hang in there at the beginning because I believe you will find this series to get much more interesting as it roles along.
BELIEF 1: The Olympics, Paralympics and Special Olympics can be used interchangeable.
Although this may soundso ridiculous that it shouldn’t seem necessary to define these, you would be quite surprised how many times I have been asked whether I would be training for the Special Olympics and not the Paralympics. There is the occasional overlap in which a Paralympic athlete qualifies for his/her Olympic team (ex: South African amputee Oscar Pistorius and US visually impaired distance runner Marla Runyan) but these instances are rare for many reasons.
The Olympic Games (Summer/Winter) occur every 4 years with the summer and wintergames being offset by 2 years. The Olympic Games are meant to showcase the most talented “able-bodied” athletes in the world. I don’t think I need to go any further into who the Olympic Games are intended. With that said, this is not to say that many athletes that compete at the Paralympic Games are not as good or better athletes than those at the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games prohibits the use of any device or equipment that may be an accommodation but gives the athlete an advantage over their competition (i.e. Wheelchair, Tandem bicycle, Guide, etc) and thus many Paralympic athletes are not eligible to compete in the Olympic Games regardless of their athletic abilities.
The Paralympic Games (Summer/Winter) take place in the exact same years and venues as the Olympic Games but begin 3 weeks following the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. The Paralympic Games are intended to showcase the best athletes with a classifiable disability. All athletes who want to compete in the Paralympic Games must fit into one of the internationally recognized classifications and compete with the equipment and within the rules of the specific classification. If a Paralympic Athlete wants to attempt to compete in the Olympic Games, they must meet all the same qualification standards/times that an Olympic athlete is required to do as well as prove that any accommodation or adaptation that they require does not give them any competitive advantage over the other Olympic competition. Thus, it is very rare for a Paralympic athletes be eligible and qualify for both the Paralympic and Olympic Games.
The Special Olympics are held every 2 years and are not affiliated or in conjunction with the Olympic or Paralympic Games. The Special Olympics are intended for those that have intellectual impairments. The Special Olympics is its own stand alone entity and is not affiliated nor have the same mission as the Olympic/Paralympic movement. There are very few similarities between the Special Olympics and the Olympic/Paralympic Games although one would be surprised at how many times I have been asked or that others have mentioned to their friends that I would be attempting to compete in the Special Olympics. There are those that may be eligible for both the Paralympics and Special Olympics because they may have both a physical and mental disability but in these cases these individuals would most likely compete only in the Paralympics, as the level of competition is much much higher in the Paralympic Games.
BELIEF 2: The term Para Athlete and Paralympiancan always be used interchangeable.
A Para athlete is anyone that has a classified disability. A Paralympian is someone that has actually competed at the Paralympic Games. These two terms are not always interchangeable nor do they define the ability or competition level of the athlete. An athlete that has competed at the Paralympic Games can accurately be termed a Paralympian or a Para Athlete but an athlete that is a Para Athlete cannot accurately be termed a Paralympian. There are many superior Para athletes left home from the Paralympic Games. Due to the limited number of medal events offered at the Paralympic Games and the selection procedures among sports and individual nations, one cannot use these two terms in a hierarchical fashion. Using myself as an example, the sport of triathlon is in the Paralympic Games for the first time at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. I can accurately be considered a Para-Triathlete because the sport is in the games and the Blind/VI PT5 classification is a recognized classification in the sport but the PT5 Male classification was not chosen as a medal event at the Rio Paralympic Games and therefore I cannot accurately call myself a Paralympian.
The selection of events and classification offered at the Paralympic Games is a topic of much controversy. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) as well as individual sport governing body’s do not always select the deepest or most competitive classification to highlight at the Paralympic Games. In fact, many involved in Para Sports often question the intent and logic that is used in the selection making process. Again I use my own experience in Paratriathlon as an example. Despite being ranked #1 in the world in one of the deepest and most competitive classifications (PT5 Blind/VI Male), I will not be eligible to compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. The question of why and how selection decisions are made is one that many Para Athletes have and will be hinted at in other topics in this blog series.
One other quick note related to this topic is the common designation of Paralympian's as Olympians. Those that compete in the Paralympics are not Olympians and visa versa. These terms have no relevance to athletic ability, but rather are seperate competitions.
BELIEF 3: The goal of the Paralympic Games is to inspire the world.
You may get a different answer depending on who you ask this question. If you ask the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) they will most likely say that this is true of the Paralympic movement as it is stated in their mission and constitution. If you ask the majority of Para athletes that are serious about their sport and competition they will say that this is totally a myth. We as athletes do not set forth in sports to go and inspire the world, we go to compete and win. Our mission is no different than any Olympic athlete or any professional athlete outside of the Olympic/Paralympic Games. The fact of the matter is that there are no participation medals nor “inspiration” points given at the Paralympic Games. Although the media may put all their focus towards finding what they believe is the most “inspirational” story, this is not necessarily who wins in the Olympic Games and nor is it in the Paralympic Games. The primary goal of theParalympic Games should be to determine the greatest athlete with respect to their disability class and NOT to find the most inspirational stories NOR highlight athletes who “appear” more disabled as a better representation of the Paralympic Games.
With the above said, I am not saying that its a negative aspect that Para Athletes serve as an inspiration and motivation to the general society. I am just saying that as Para athletes, it is not our goal to go inspire the world. Our goal is to compete and maximize our potential and if by doing so the byproduct is that we have a motivational impact on others that is just an added bonus. It should not be in the mission nor constitution of the Paralympic Games but because it is included, the focus on competition and eliteness of athletic competition gets diluted.
BELIEF 4: Both Olympic and Paralympic Athletes are elite athletes.
This statement is true for many but not all classifications or sports. The Olympic Games are much older age and only include one category for each gender in an event than the Paralympic Games. The Olympic Games therefore have had many more years to develop themselves as the premier display of athletic ability among “able-bodied” individuals. It is safe to say that all Olympic competitions are good representations of elite athletes in both male and female gender but I wouldn't say this is fully true for all classifications in Para Sport.
The Paralympic Games are not nearly as old and include multiple classifications within each sport and therefore the time necessary to develop an elite level of competition within each classification is greater. Similar to Olympic competition, male classifications have developed quicker with respect to depth and degree of talent than female classifications in Para Sports. One would be totally unrealistic to argue that the competition level in female Para Sports equals that of male but there are definite stand out athletes that have emerged within female Para Sports.
Among sport classifications of the same gender there are typically a few classifications that clearly stand out as being deeper and more competitive than others.
From my viewpoint, there are a indicators that stand out to support the above statements. First, with respect to the level of competition among male versus female competition, one can look at the number of countries represented and the total number of athletes participating for each gender. Female participation rate seems to be between 1/3 and 1/2 of that of male participation for each classification among sports. Also, the number of male athletes that are able to qualify and compete in multiple Paralympic sports is far lower than female athletes competing in multiple Paralympic sports. Thus, this demonstrates that the competition level has reached an elite level where one must specialize in one area in order to dominate.
Another indicator of the eliteness of competition among a classification is to compare times with respect to elite “able-bodied” and/or Olympic level competition. When the times or speeds of the Paralympic competition near those of Olympic competition, it is safe to determine the athletic ability to be elite as there is always some degree of physiological limitation limiting the Para Athlete. This method of comparing times and speeds is obviously not applicable when comparing events such as marathon wheelchair racing to marathon running and the like but is more relevant in many other classifications.
This concludes Part1 in this series. Part 2 will come out soon and will begin to touch on more in depth topics of the Paralympic Games. Hope you have enjoyed this 1st edition!