Two Weeks In Atlanta – Paralympics

After having his leg amputated just above the knee, due to an injury from a school playground accident, Al Mead asked his mother, “Why are you crying, Mom? It’ll grow back won’t it?” It wasn’t long before the nine-year-old realized that he wouldn’t need his leg to grow back to return to the playground. While waiting for his prosthesis to be made he taught himself how to ride his bike using one leg. When his prosthesis did arrive he didn’t hesitate to take the field for a game of baseball or the playground for pick-up basketball or even the ice rink for some hockey. He never thought of himself as being disabled and therefore never was. Al went on to set world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meter track events as well as American records in the high jump and long jump in international competitions for athletes with disabilities. After carrying the torch to the cauldron in front of the capacity crowd at Olympic Stadium, for the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Paralympic Games, he remarked “this was the most amazing trek I had ever been on.

In every athlete at the Paralympic Games there is a similar compelling story. Sometime during each one of these competitor’s lives there was a moment when they acquired a condition which is classified by the International Paralympic Committee as a disability. For the spectators at these events, it did not take long for these classifications to lose their meaning, as everyone watching quickly realized that there is little if anything disabling about having a disability. With this realization the focus of the spectators and the media shifted from the stories of wheelchairs and the prosthetics to finish lines, stop watches, scoreboards and medal stands.

The first assumption by many spectators as they entered the venues, was that unlike the Olympics, these games were really more about feeling good and about just participating. Upon their exit, after watching the likes of American sprinter Tony Volpentest race to a time 1.52 seconds shy of Donovan Bailey’s 100 meter Olympic and world record, or witnessing American swimmer Trischa Zorn win her 41st Paralympic gold medal, the onlookers realized that these games were really first and foremost about one thing; world class athletic achievements.

For every athlete there is a story of an obstacle overcome, but this is not what has made each of them exceptional. In the words of javelin bronze medalist, Richard Ruffalo, “this (Paralympics) proves that there are no overachievers, just under estimators.” Ruffalo, who holds nine world records in various field events as well as being a member of the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame and the National Teacher Hall of Fame, after he was named America’s Outstanding Teacher and Coach for 1995, is exceptional by many standards. However his visual impairment is not what has made his life, his story and his Paralympic achievements amazing. Instead it is his drive. determination and most importantly his competitive spirit which has defined him. 

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For many of the Paralympic competitors, tapping into this spirit was as easy as taking the field, diving into the pool, riding a bike or mounting a horse. Athletics have always been one of the most powerful expressions of human potential and ability in any given society or culture. As the world converged on Atlanta, this tradition continued as the performance of each athlete began to dissolve the “dis” from the term “disabled sports”. 

After Paralympian Luis Alices lost his leg due to complications with meningitis, he found his competitive spirit in the swimming pool. “I started swimming and I heard I was good. When I couldn’t walk, swimming was my sanctuary. I’d always tell my mom, I can fly when I swim because when I swim there are no limits. Luis wasn’t lying and he wasn’t happy merely swimming for recreation. Since stepping into the pool during his rehabilitation he has captured nine medals in international competition and set an American record in the 100 meter backstroke.

Paralympic competitor Lauren McDevitt had to search for her triumphant spirit when she suddenly lost the use of her legs for no discernible reason. There was no injury, there was no accident. I was at school and my thighs started to cramp” Within the hour she had no feeling or movement from the waist down. Her physical therapy for this unexplained paralysis included riding horses. It was in this activity that she discovered her spirit and her world-class abilities. “I don’t feel like 1 have a disability on the horse at all. (and) people don’t know I have a disability.” Her riding evolved from rehabilitation into recreation and eventually into international competition. Her new found athleticism soon expanded to include wheelchair basketball and other activities, all of which she now excels in. These athletic endeavors have translated over into her work as a recreational therapist, where she is devoted to duplicating her rehabilitation experience with other people. with disabilities..

These athletes, their coaches, families and friends know what they can do and what they are capable of. The general public may not, and this is what was at the heart of the Atlanta Paralympics, the Abilities Expo and the Third Paralympic Congress, which occurred together in August with the common task of raising awareness about a wide range of issues affecting people with disabilities. The merging of the Disability. Rights Movement with the largest gathering of people with disabilities, and the second largest athletic competition in the world this year, created an opportunity to change the way Americans and the world think about and relate to people with disabilities. As the games ended. Paralympic chairman Justin Dart proclaimed, “We’ve done what we set out to do… We have united the worlds of disability sports and disability rights. with a mandate to move forward and form worldwide coalitions for glob al change” in economic and athletic opportunities as well as human rights for people with disabilities. 

However, this mandate did not come without controversy and these games did not go off without a glitch. At the Paralympic Congress, the issue of mentally disabled athlete’s participation became a hotly debated issue as did the potential for the future synthesis of the Paralympics and the Olympics into one event.

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We spoke with Judy Heuman, a participant in the Paralympic Congress and the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and she summed up her take on these issues by putting the Atlanta games into historical perspective. “When I went to my first Paralympics in 1972 there were really only people in wheelchairs. What we’ve seen going on (since then) is that the movement is really expanding. It has become much more inclusive so that I am sure as we move forward in the next four years there will be more mentally disabled people involved. She also believes that the assimilation of the Paralympics and the Olympic Games would be highly advantageous for both the disability rights and sports movements as well “One of the reasons believe having the activities at the same time is important is because then the athletes come in together and they are part of the same group. We’re obviously not saying that wheelchair basketball and non-disabled basketball should be happening with a mixed team. But we are saying that when the millions of people come to the Olympics that they would be coming to view activities of athletes; disabled and non-disabled… In my view we are talking about inclusion.”

Attendance for the Atlanta Paralympics fell short of that which was seen at the recent Olympics and that of Barcelona’s 1992 Paralympics, this decline in attendance was attributed to the first ever sale of tickets for events and the low profile of the games in the American media. However 3.500 athletes from 127 countries and over half a million spectators in Atlanta did make for an impressive showing. This decline in turnout may have been a blessing in disguise for Paralympic organizers who experienced many of the same technical and logistical snags, as well as transportation and accommodation problems that the Olympics had been plagued with weeks earlier. However, these problems were overcome and did little to tarnish the Paralympic spirit. In one instance, when a tape of “The Star Spangled Banner” would not work for U.S. cyclist Dory Selinger’s medal ceremony, 500 spectators improvised by singing the song for her.

Another problem was the potential strain on Paralympic officials and volunteers who registered over 200 new standards into the Paralympic record book in ten days, nearly ten times the amount broken during the 1996 Olympics. American swimmer, Jason Wening explained that “(As) the population (of athletes) that is involved in the Paralympics increases we start pushing each other more and more (and) the times are going to continue to fall dramatically because we are becoming more real true athletes instead of (just) recreational athletes.” As these athletes have made their assault on the Paralympic record book they are approaching comparative results to those recorded in able-bodied athletics. Sports commentator and former Paralympian, Skip Wilkins believes that this is a direct result from more people with disabilities around the world discovering their athletic abilities and then seeking out opportunities for competition. “By the involvement you see (at the Paralympics), it’s causing the athletes to perform on a different level. We have athletes (now) that have almost made the able-bodied Olympics.”

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This explosion of record setting performances is also a testament to the history and expansion of the Paralympic Games, which were created in 1948 by Sir Ludwig Guttman of Great Britain as a way to promote the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers. In 1960, a deliberate attempt was made to connect the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rome, which continued in Atlanta and will also occur in Sydney, Australia in 2000. With this combination, the Paralympics have expanded from four hundred athletes in wheelchairs at the Rome Games to 3,500 athletes with a wide range of disability classifications at the Atlanta Games.

As the Paralympic Games have expanded on an international level so to has the Disability Rights Movement. It isn’t hard to understand the connection. After watching these athletes it becomes difficult to stigmatize people with disabilities as disabled. These games have also had a profound effect on people with disabilities in the events as well as in the stands. Some of the most endearing scenes were of the crowds of autograph seekers around the athletes. Many parents who had brought their children with disabilities to see these game have left them with a powerful image of athletic achievements that they may have never witnessed before. And for the able-bodied spectators who made up the majority of the audience, the response was often the same. Paralympic organizer, Andy Fleming remarked, “People have really been moved by what they’ve seen and what they’ve been a part of”. Their most common response after witnessing the athletic achievements of these athletes with disabilities was “I had no idea.”

On the international level, the Paralympic Games and Congress highlighted the changes which are not only taking place here in America, but all over the world. Joshua Malinga, world chairperson of Disabled People’s International, from Zimbabwe, addressed the Congress on issues concerning athletes with disabilities from developing nations. Unlike the Olympics, the Paralympics is still primarily an event attended by athletes from America, Europe, Australia and the Pacific Rim nations. Malinga stressed that this is largely a problem of economics and not of determination or ignorance. In fact. he noted that the Disability Rights Movement is well developed in African nations as many of the people there have become more politicized and rights orientated through the “political liberation struggles of the past fifty years. He viewed the games in Atlanta as an opportunity to extend this process to developing nations. “If disabled people in developed countries are empowered, they will influence the redirection of resources to their counterparts in the Third World.” making it easier for developing nations to provide opportunities and advancement, such as Paralympic participation, to their citizens with disabilities.

With every Paralympic Games, the world is getting a better idea of the spirit, abilities and accomplishments of people with disabilities. Thus, it is with great anticipation that we look forward to Sydney in the year 2000, where a record 5.000 athletes from approximately 130 countries are expected to once again assault the record books and anyone who would make the mistake of underestimating someone with a disability.

On The Lighter Side:

“As of 16:00, American Paralympic Committee officials had not received word regarding the whereabouts of the Iraqi delegation press release read. My immediate response was, “Did anyone check the busses?” You see, the job of transporting the athletes and spectators at the Paralympics rested in the hands of none other than America’s finest the U.S. Army. I believed this was a possible explanation for Iraqi team’s disappearance, as I’ve heard there is still some tension and bad blood between both sides over that whole Gulf-War thing a few years back.

While thinking this, I began to imagine that my editor was probably issuing press releases about my whereabouts as well. My rather routine 19 mile bus trip, which for any average citizen with a car is a rather brief affair, had turned into an hour-long ordeal.

It took an international effort to help our bus driver to finally reach the venue. Her two week training and written directions provided by the U.S. military had been insufficient for the task. Instead, it was the combined effort of myself, an Australian athlete and two British journalists, with the aid of a crude map on an advertisement for the Abilities Expo which finally helped us reach our destination. We rushed inside and set up our cameras just in time for shots of the athletes heading for the locker room. With four hours to kill until the next event we decided to help our bus driver make her way back to the Marriott.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t lost faith in our military’s ability one bit. If they charge the battlefield as hard as the charged the curbs in Atlanta I’m sure our enemies will always run away in terror, much the same way pedestrians did on Atlanta’s city sidewalks.

However, I do think I heard my two British companions remark to each other that they were quite grateful that the whole Cold War thing was over without ever getting “hot” enough to involve our army on Her Royal Majesty’s soil. To this our bus driver responded, “The weather has been really warm here in Atlanta hasn’t it?”

Story and photos by Mark Gray

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