Man in Motion Rick Hanson considers himself an athlete first and foremost, and thinks that the Olympics and Paralympics should be integrated as one event. Others disagree. Many of the athletes prefer to have their own games, where they are not lost in the shuffle or marginalized in the mainstream. They also fear losing the down-home camaraderie of the smaller Paralympic games which is part of their history and which makes the Paralympics distinctive.
The current controversy in the international sporting community reminds me of the ongoing domestic debate about how to meet the needs, abilities and aspirations of all our citizens with disabilities? Is “integration” the way to go? Or should people with special needs best be accommodated by segregation into their own programs and facilities? With respect to domestic services for people with special needs, the historical evolution has generally been the recognition that everyone has a right to participate, the organization of a distinctive response for particular needs, and then, more latterly, consideration of whether those particular needs could be met in the mainstream. One thinks of the history of providing special education services in Canadian schools, or the responses of different Canadian communities to access to public transit.
The history of the paralympic movement, at least in western countries, is somewhat different. The first competition for athletes with disabilities was held in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Rehab Hospital, northwest of London. The goal of the Stoke Mandeville program was to use sport as a tool for remedial treatment and rehabilitation, so all the participants were World War Two veterans with spinal cord injuries who competed in wheelchairs. The first Stoke Mandeville Games, as they were called, were scheduled to occur on the opening day of the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. At the second Stoke Mandeville games in 1952, veterans from the Netherlands, also with spinal cord injuries, attended. Out of this event evolved the International Stoke Mandeville Games Committee.
Eight years later, in 1960, 400 disabled athletes from 23 countries participated in the first quadrennial Summer Paralympic Games for disabled athletes, held in Rome right after the Summer Olympics that year. Again, the participants were all persons with spinal cord injuries in wheelchairs.
In the summer of 1976, the Summer Paralympics were held in Toronto and, for the first time, participation was extended to amputees and the visually impaired. Arnie Boldt, an 18-year-old athlete born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who had lost his right leg as a child, won gold medals in the high jump and the long jump and was chosen the Games’ outstanding athlete. That same year, the first quadrennial Winter Games for disabled athletes were held in Ornsköldsvik, Sweden. Athletes from 12 countries competed in two events.
In 1992, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was established to “enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.” In 2001, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee adopted a “one bid, one city” policy. Thereafter, every city bidding to host the Olympics also bids to hold the related Paralympics. In the 2012 Summer Paralympics held in London, 4,302 athletes from 164 countries competed in 503 events in 20 sports.
It strikes me that the paralympic movement has had its own unique trajectory. Originally limited to one group of people with a particular disability, primarily for therapy and rehabilitation purposes, it has now become more inclusive. By linking itself with the Olympics, it has taken advantage of first-class facilities, and moved into the world of marketing. It has also now expanded into the public realm with the explicit objective to “inspire and excite the world.” For that purpose, the separate Paralympics may indeed be the better way. Maybe 65 hours of exclusive Paralympics television coverage, and continuous digital streaming of all the events, provides more bang for the buck in exposure value than would integration into the mainstream Olympics. And the separate games preserve the camaraderie which the participants and their supporters cherish. I don’t know, but undoubtedly, the debate will continue.
My thanks to John Lane for his help in preparing this post. The opinions expressed here are my own.