Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Famed Canadian wheelchair racer dreams of an integrated Paralympics-Olympics one day

From The Globe & Mail in Toronto:

TORONTO -- With a sigh, wheelchair athlete Chantal Petitclerc said Oct. 26 she believes one of her dreams may never come true: the integration of the Paralympics and Olympics.

Petitclerc - who was in Toronto Monday as the keynote speaker for inductions to the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame - said when she first competed in the Paralympics, she had "a really big hope" wheelchair racing would eventually be fully included in the Summer Games.

"But I did five Paralympics, and it never did happen," said the 39-year-old from Montreal who won five gold medals at Beijing in 2008, equalling her effort at Athens in 2004. She had previously announced that Beijing would be her final Paralympics.

"To me, it's really frustrating, because I still believe in it," she said. "I still believe wheelchair racing has the depth and level of competitiveness that by nature makes it part of the Olympics. It should be there. It has the number of participants and the number of countries [required to be part of the Games.]"

The Paralympics were held in the same city as the Olympics for the first time at the 1988 Seoul Summer Games. Wheelchair racing was a demonstration event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and part of the Olympic program as an exhibition at Athens in 2004. But it was dropped from the Beijing Games program and wheelchair athletes appeared only at the Paralympics there.

That hurt, Petitclerc said. And worst of all, she said, no one from the Canadian Paralympic Committee, Canadian Olympic Committee, nor Athletics Canada voiced a complaint.

"As athletes, we don't have the power to do anything about it," she said. "The only power we have is to race and to show the world that we do great things and that we are athletes. To me, that is the frustrating point, that after 20 years, I think everybody agrees we are athletes, but yet there is a lot of politics, and lobbying involved, and obviously, wheelchair racing doesn't have a big financial lobby.

"That's the most disappointing part, that even the people that are supposed to represent me don't fight for me."

While Petitclerc doesn't see a full Paralympic/Olympic integration happening any time soon, she said the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games organizing committee has done "an amazing job" at putting the Paralympics at the same level as the Olympics. And there promises to be more Paralympic television coverage than ever before.

"I'm excited," she said. "It will be exciting to see how it goes."

Inducted into the Canadian Disability Hall of Fame yesterday was Diane Roy of Hatley, Que., who was too busy to accept her award. She was in Japan, having just won a bronze medal in a marathon wheelchair race the previous night.