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Paralympics: Anyone Watching?

Canadians agonized over this year’s Olympic games. Our athletes brought home only slightly more than half the number of medals they won in the previous games, and many hopefuls put in disappointing performances.

The cause of the poor results will be discussed for years to come, and many within the Canadian Olympic Committee and the individual sport federations will be carefully scrutinized. Some have even lost their jobs.

It would not be fair to say, though, that Canadian athletes aren’t doing well. Not if you consider the performance of our disabled athletes at this year’s Paralympics.

The Canadian Paralympic team ranked an incredible third in the world at this year’s games (according to the Paralympic rankings by the most gold medals), bringing home a butt-kicking 72 medals — 28 gold, 19 silver, and 25 bronze. We were beaten only by Great Britian, with 94 medals, and China, which took home 141. Ranked by the overall number of medals, Canada came in 7th, out of 73 countries winning medals and 136 competing nations.

In fact, Canada dominated in many sports, our athletes often winning by margins of several seconds. Many broke world and Olympic records in their performances.

Nevertheless, many Canadians may not be aware of this achievement. Television coverage of the events was sparse, and few news programs included updates on the progress of our team. CBC.com had a site dedicated to the Paralympics, which was similar to the one for the regular Olympics, but the coverage was much more sparse. Some information was not even included, such as athlete bios, and the medal standings chart did not link to a page showing in what events these medals were won.

I have to admit, I’ve never watched the Paralympics before, and until this year, I thought they were the same thing as the special Olympics. I know better now. The distinction is somewhat complex, but generally Paralympians compete with some form of physical disability, while Special Olympians usually have some form of intellectual disability.

This year, I decided to take an active interest in the Paralympics. AU Sports Club (AUSC) President Shannon Maguire got me interested when she told me about some of the interesting sports for disabled persons that are now becoming popular.

One such sport is Goal Ball, which is played by persons who are legally blind. All participants wear blindfolds to ensure everyone is equally “in the dark”, and participants use their other senses to alternately throw balls toward a large goal with three tenders, and protect their own goal by leaping in front of incoming balls. It’s remarkable how well they can predict the trajectory of a fast incoming ball, and almost alarming how they risk life and limb hurling themselves to the ground to protect their goal. These are hardened athletes, to be sure. The event was invented for the vision impaired, but is becoming popular even amongst the sighted.

This, and some other Paralympian events, are very different from what you see in the regular Olympics, but they carry the same spirit of competition, the same drive for excellence, and the same opportunity for triumph or disappointment.

Some events, though, are quite familiar, such as wheelchair basketball. Other than the obvious fact that the players are all in wheelchairs, the game is very similar to the one that able-bodied athletes play. It seems different at first, but within a short time, the “feel” of the game becomes very familiar. The players compete with the same aggression, energy and flair that you see in regular basketball. I happen to dislike basketball, and dislike wheelchair basketball equally. I’m not really interested in “games” and team sports when I watch the Olympics. I want to see great individual performances.

This is why I love track and field, now I know I like Paralympic track events just as much. It’s got everything that Olympic track has. Some athletes give it their all, and put in the performance of their lives. Others, who are favorites for gold, leave the track in despair after a less than expected performance. Occasionally, an underdog pulls ahead and does the impossible. They compete on the same Olympic track, for the same country, and the same dreams. They compete as hard as Olympians — the only difference is, few people bother to watch. This does little to dull the excitement of the athletes, however.

The Paralympics even has its stars, like Canadian Benoit Huot, who is known around the pool as the Paralympian answer to America’s Michael Phelps.

I’m not sure that the comparison is a fair one for Huot, who will never compete alongside Phelps and who should shine on his own terms, but it’s a habit of those who assess disabled athletes to praise them with comparisons to able-bodied athletes who compete on very different terms. Phelps may swim a little faster, but does not have to compete with a club foot and a weakened calf.

Huot is not our only star: swimmer Stepahie Dixon brought home 6 medals on her own, no doubt swimming far faster with her one leg, than most could with two.

The interesting thing about the Paralympics is that you only notice for a few minutes that you are watching disabled athletes. Within a short time, even the strangeness of Parlympic Volleyball — which has players competing from a seated position on the floor, moving rapidly around the court on the strength of their hands and arms — becomes ordinary and the spirit of competition takes over. The games feel very much like regular sports competitions.

Sports, after all, are sports, and the desire to win is the same.

Crushing disappointment and euphoric elation are also universal, and the Paralympics offers glimpses of both. There are stories behind these games, and the athletes who spend their lives striving to get there.

Canadians are a competitive lot, and the spirit of our country is affected when our athletes win or lose. For those thirsting for a taste of Canadian victory, the Paralympics may be the answer. At these games, our athletes routinely squash the competition. The question is, is anyone watching?

Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief

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