No wheelies need apply

The XXV Olympiad is the XXVth to exclude disabled athletes, and it won't be the last

by Joe Clark

First published 1992

As millions of Olympics-hating channel-hoppers figure out ways to avoid not one but three separate TV feeds of the Barcelona games, an injustice bubbles at the periphery of the feel-good Olympic juggernaut. Disabled athletes and advocates are in their fourth decade of uphill lobbying for inclusion into the Olympics-- or at least for recognition and funding of the Paralympics, the separate athletic extravaganza for world-class disabled athletes that tags along after the Olympics. And while officials on all sides try to sound upbeat about the future of elite disabled athletics, the fact is that parity between disabled and nondisabled athletes-- from high-school teams to Olympic competition-- will remain a distant dream well into the 21st century.

Disabled athletes (blind, amputee, and many types of wheelchair users, including paraplegics, quadriplegics, and people with cerebral palsy) compete in organized leagues in everything from archery and basketball to swimming and weightlifting. (A minute number of disabled competitors even compete side-by-side in an equally minute number of Olympic events, like shooting, archery and swimming.) By now no sensible sports fan or commentator would even hint that disabled athletes aren't athletes, but that's only if the subject comes up in the first place. Disabled athletes garner little coverage in the sports press and effectively none on TV, and as a result there isn't much of an awareness among Joe and Jane Sixpack that an entire category of athlete is shut out when the Olympic love-in takes place every four years. And that, sports fans, means the politics of the issue are kept safely out of sight.

Demonstration and exhibition events are the first area of contention. Wheelchair athletes ("wheelies" in the biz) have had demonstration or exhibition events at the last two sets of Olympics. (Barcelona will host women's 800-metre and men's 1,500-metre wheelchair events.) But no disabled demonstration sport has moved up to a "real" Olympic sport with full accreditation. "I have not heard of any strong effort to really get over that hurdle and have them included," says Mike Moran of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "I don't think that it's being discussed at the IOC program level."

Conspiracy theorists don't have that much to go on here, since some nondisabled demonstration events, like curling, haven't made it either. But the International Olympic Committee has decided that after Barcelona all demonstration and exhibition events will be eliminated, period. "Games, particularly the summer games, are so huge they're almost out of control," says Frank Ratcliffe of the Canadian Olympic Association. "This is a massive event involving tens of thousands of people. The IOC is looking for ways not to make the games bigger but to make the games smaller." The IOC is even toying with eliminating some existing events-- soccer, boxing, weightlifting, and synchronized swimming have all been mentioned-- and has decided that no new event can be added without taking an existing one away.

This doesn't faze Anne Merklinger, director of the Commission for Inclusion of Athletes with a Disability, based outside Ottawa. For her, exhibition events don't cut it in the first place: "We've heard the message from many athletes that have competed in exhibition events that they are not treated equally." (Athletes in exhibition events don't have an automatic right to reside in the Olympic village and can't march in opening and closing ceremonies.) "By continuing the hosting of exhibition events, we just perpetuate the image of difference instead of acceptance." Her group's goal is nothing less than to "gain the inclusion of events with full medal status in international competitions."

Merklinger wants the Atlanta games in 1996 to include men's wheelchair basketball and marathon, women's 100-metre freestyle swimming, and men's single table tennis-- a carefully-chosen roster comprising men and women, wheelchair users, amputees, athletes with other disabilities. "We are hoping through a well-planned lobbying initiative within the next few years to promote an awareness within the IOC that they should be providing a statesman role in this."

Merklinger and other activists "are doing a lot of lobbying, and it is something that we're going to have to decide on once and for all," according to Richard Pound, an influential IOC official and the IOC member in Canada. (Other IOC officials didn't return phone calls by press time.) "I don't know what the outcome will be. There's certainly a very considerable body of thought that the boat is full, and that we can't take anybody on until somebody gets off."

Unequal treatment of disabled athletes, Pound says, is just one of the many social problems of the Olympics; he admits, for example, that the Olympics have a gender-equity problem. Advancing an argument disabled people are already quite familiar with from the exclusions they face in daily life, Pound adds, "There are lots of choices to be made, and whenever there are choices to include or exclude, [the idea that] you're talking about 'discrimination' is a moot point, I think, or a debatable point. Any exercise of distinctions requires discriminating. We cannot be all things to all people."

As for the stagnation, and future elimination, of exhibition events as disabled athletes' back door to the Olympics, Pound is candid. "I think the philosophy behind including exhibition events was simply that it would be an opportunity using a different forum from the Paralympics, or the Special Olympics if they're ever going to get that particular act together... we'll provide you with the opportunity to showcase some of your achievements and performance as part of our particular event. But you're not part of it. You know you're not part of it. We have ours, and we can't include everything in ours."

"I know what the party line is at the IOC, but I'd like to see us work within the international federations of the sports to get at least one disabled event per sport integrated as a start," says Judy Einbinder, director of sports for the U.S. Paralympic team and one of only two coaches allowed to attend the Barcelona exhibition events. "If every country got that participation first at a national level, I think they would have enough clout" to go shouting to the IOC. "The old trick of starting at the top and working down and the bottom and working up is probably the best way to approach this."

Einbinder, whom sources for this story variously described as "amazing" and "a hero," has been coaching disabled jocks since 1977. "When I started it was ridiculously unaccepted. We raced in parking lots with chalk lines." Now, though, disabled sport is "nonthreatening, it's easy to understand, and it's not viewed as radical. [People will think] 'If they can race with me or lift weights beside me in the weightroom, I guess it would be OK to hire them or for them to buy a house next door to me.'" But "it's kind of conditional acceptance," Einbinder says. Taking a slot away from a nondisabled athlete is a good way to foster resentment, and if the IOC is serious about its zero-sum strategy for new events, that's may just be what happens.

And money is a big problem. The five U.S. athletes competing in the Barcelona wheelchair events are being funded and uniformed like their fellow (nondisabled) athletes and will reside in the Olympic village, but American athletes heading to the Paralympics in Barcelona in September have to pay $2,500 each to get there. Cliff Crase, editor of Sports & Spokes, the comprehensive magazine covering disabled sports, says the USOC is "dragging their feet" about funding the Atlanta Paralympics (and, reminiscent of the Gay Olympics lawsuit of '84, is even objecting to the use of the morpheme -lympic). Each of the seven disabled-sports groups in the USOC receives "significantly less money than a national governing body for, say, skiing would receive," according to Bobbi Avancena of National Handicapped Sports, an umbrella group in Rockville, Maryland, "but we're expected to provide Olympic-calibre athletes who have had little physical education through school and college." And the resources of a group like NHS are thinned by having to work at all levels of sport instead of just the elite range, where many nondisabled governing bodies specialize.

"You've got to go back to the whole infrastructure throughout society at the very community level," NHS's Kirk Bauer explains. "An ordinary person without any disability, from the time that they're very young they can start to participate in community recreational and sports programs. All the way up to the high schools and the colleges they have programs available to them. With a disabled person this is not the case," Bauer says, due to inaccessible programs, ignorance, and the ostracism of disabled schoolkids that continues even after the mainstreaming boom of the '70s and '80s.

Facing obstacles like these, many disabled-athletics organizations have all but given up on the Olympics. "First and foremost," Bauer says, "we want to have the Paralympics recognized as the Olympic-equivalent event for physically disabled athletes worldwide, and then we want our athletes to get the same funding support" to train and attend those games, held in the same year (but not always the same city) as the Olympics since 1960. "Until we get there, the other goal is almost secondary, because for the vast majority of athletes, that is the Olympics for them."

"They know that the integration into the Olympics is really such a farfetched dream for most of them they'd as soon put their energies into the Paralympics," says Crase.

In an oblique way, Ratcliffe agrees with this approach. "I don't understand why people equate being in the Olympics with being legitimate. You can be a perfectly legitimate athlete without being in the Olympics," he says. All very noble, but the fact of the matter is that the Olympics rule the athletic roost, and while non-Olympic events from Wimbledon to the Commonwealth Games may manage to snag sponsorships and broadcasting deals, an event like the Paralympics gets at best novelty play in the press, which translates into obscurity and poor general recognition. Being on the medal podium in the Olympics, while arguably no more "legitimate" than winning at some other event, is simply a bigger deal. And from now into the foreseeable future, those medal podiums will not come equipped with ramps.

Zip to the sidebar on adding sports to the Olympics. Or back to the Joe Clark main page, or to the list of available sports articles.