The Paralympics: A second challenge

Everybody knows that the 2004 Olympics will pose a monumental organizational challenge for Greece, involving an international sports festival, thousands of athletes converging on Athens from the four corners of the Earth, facilities all over the city working flat out, a technological mini-world in operation, a collection of the world’s glitterati to house, and general disruption amid all the festivities. But not everybody knows that all this applies not just to the Summer Games of August 13-29, but also to the Games that will follow those Games a fortnight later, the special series of events known as the Paralympics. Not one but two world athletic competitions will be staged in Athens in less than three years’ time. If you think that the Olympics proper will be hard enough to stage well in Athens, then just imagine the hurdles that the Paralympics – an alternative Games to consist of 18 different sports for physically disabled athletes – will present. Preparing for and hosting a gathering involving thousands of participants with special needs poses a major challenge on multiple fronts. One is technical and infrastructure-related; new wheelchair ramps and the like will be needed all over the Olympics complex and, more widely, around a city noted for their virtual absence. Another is time; Athenians, just coming off a sport-besotted August, will be getting back to work, or at least thinking (or not thinking) about doing so, returning from their out-of-Athens-during-the-Games holidays, more sports won’t exactly be uppermost on their minds. The regular Olympics will leave Athenians utterly weary of sport (and crowds, and closed roads) as it is, and it will be hard to drum up interest in athletic events of any kind in such an environment. This goes triple for wheelchair races, blind swimming, and a host of other sports that, to say the least, are uncommon in these parts. A third challenge, psychological in nature, is undoubtedly the most difficult of all. A successful Paralympics depends on and presupposes a transformation in the way society looks upon and treats its own disabled population, for only then will the efforts of the Paralympic athletes be put into context. There is a huge hurdle to get over in terms of understanding, much less appreciating, the difficulties faced by the disabled in simply getting through life. Imagine being a disabled person in crowded Athens. Imagine being a disabled person in full-time training for a sport. And imagine that person coming to Athens to compete. What sort of reception is he or she likely to receive here? A successful Paralympics – successful in the sense of a glitch-free competition and enthusiastic crowds – is a rather difficult vision to conjure up at this point. Things could change, and given that Athens is obligated to put them on, they need to. (The delayed agreement to host the Paralympics was finally signed last April between ATHOC and the International Paralympics Committee.) If the Olympics are a catalyst for national change, then the Paralympics will be an important link in that process. This could be an ideal opportunity for Greeks to re-examine attitudes toward and treatment of the disabled, including both individual attitudes and societal choices. Of course, if disability statistics are to be believed, then Greece has a whopping 17 percent of its pensioners also labeled disabled, which, one would think, could provide some basis of empathy. Gradually, an international competition for the physically disabled has emerged over the past few decades (this being the 12th), to the point where it involves an entire operation in its own right. The first Paralympics took place at Rome in 1960; and now another Mediterranean host will inaugurate another change, namely by abolishing the entry fees that, somewhat surprisingly, were required of handicapped athletes wanting to participate up through the Sydney Games last year. This move toward equality between Olympic and Paralympic athletes is a nice gesture, but it won’t come cheap; the organizing committee has budgeted some $130 million to cover the cost of the 4,000 or so athletes expected, and another 2,000 guides. ATHOC, the Athens organizers, is the coordinating body for both sets of Games, and has a separate Paralympics Division. This will be a genuine, fully-fledged international sports extravaganza, not an afterthought charity event that others have foisted upon Greece – although initially, prevailing opinion in Greece assumed that they were precisely that. Failure to stage a good Paralympics will mean a poor denouement to the Athens Olympiad; success will both reflect well on Greece internationally and will help Greek society itself readdress its traditional reluctance to provide facilities for the disabled. They play hard, too Based on some very limited experience, I can tell you that an intense desire to excel, fierce competitiveness, hard training, and often immense athletic talent can be found among the disabled. A more health-conscious population and adventurous new possibilities have stretched the boundaries of what’s possible in the world of sport. For example, one-legged snow skiing was given a shot of publicity when US Senator Edward Kennedy’s son, Teddy, became accomplished in the sport after having a leg amputated as a youngster. Once, in the sweaty aftermath of a YMCA basketball game, a group I was with stayed over and watched a wheelchair game. The ability, not to mention desire, displayed in that competition (and this was just a local league) was astonishing; first-rate shooting, skilled dribbling and passing, and fast movement away from the ball. And the wheelchair marathon in many cities brings out some formidably trained athletes, well-bulked men and women who happen to be without working legs. In fact, they are so fast that they begin marathon races before the runners do; otherwise, they would catch up and pass them. And the Paralympics is intensely competitive, where a spot on the medals stand is coveted just as in the other Games. This has its downside too, where cheating can be a genuine problem, and not just drugs, but false disabilities (like the partially sighted trying to pass themselves off as blind), combined with traditionally lax vetting of athletes and their trainers. Those competing are not just athletes in spite of their disabilities; in many ways they are athletes because of them, in which physical therapy followed by physical training can help, for example, accident victims deal with the psychological burden of injury or postoperative trauma. And it provides a mental as well as physical challenge to themselves as well as to others. They want to be accepted as normal, but their examples can also provide an inspiration for others facing recuperation from injury or illness, or even to those of us ostensibly considered physically healthy, yet who are often walking around with bad hearts, excess weight, poor conditioning, or whatever. And we’re all handicapped in our own ways; it’s just that sometimes they are not as visible or obvious. A successful Greek Paralympics will require a huge change of consciousness among the public; not just in realizing that the disabled can strive, compete, and achieve admirable things, but in accepting them as regular people. All they want is a chance to prove themselves. A Paralympic medal or two wouldn’t hurt that effort either.