Sunday, May 29, 2011

British Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, 11-time Paralympic champion, asks, is Paralympic sport losing focus?

From BBC News in the UK, from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, 11-time Paralympic champion:

The history of the Paralympic movement might be relatively short, but its growth and development continues to move at great speed.

Much of the discussion at the moment is whether athletes such as Oscar Pistorius, or Sarah Storey will compete in both Games in London 2012.

My view on this is simple: good luck to the athletes who can do it - but we must recognise that there are limited opportunities for this to happen.

It also opens up another discussion. Is there a danger that the story of Olympic inclusion could overshadow the achievements of other disabled athletes who are fighting much greater discrimination in the outside world to get to be the best in their field?

It is useful to remember that disability sport grew up because of discrimination - and that the original programmes at Stoke Mandeville was limited because it was created largely to deal with the significant number of people injured in the Second World War.

In the 1940s, if you had a spinal cord injury life expectancy was between two and seven years and most of the time you were left in hospital to die of complications.

We have to be careful we are not in danger of discriminating within disability sport by picking those events which appear to be the most aesthetically pleasing and least likely to make the public feel uncomfortable watching.

In harsh terms, bed spaces were needed, people need rehabilitation, and so sport was used.

As the programme of Paralympic events evolves, if events for higher impairment groups drop off, where will young disabled people see their role models compete?

Furthermore, in the attempt to drive the Paralympic movement forward, we have to be careful we are not in danger of discriminating within disability sport by picking those events which appear to be the most aesthetically pleasing and least likely to make the public feel uncomfortable watching.

In the world of Paralympic sport, Boccia (pictured) is the main event for athletes with severe impairments.

At this week's Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, the sport got the opportunity to shine with a demonstration game between Great Britain and Ireland and an emphatic win by GB.

Nigel Murray, the GB team captain, admits to feeling a certain sense of frustration about the lack of media coverage and profile for his sport, especially considering its success. However, he believes that their best chance of improving their profile is to carry on winning.

It does feel that we are over-obsessed with including minimal disability in Paralympic sport because it is easier to understand achievement and also easier for athletes to make the transfer to mainstream sport.

For those people who are fans of the 400m, it is easier to see where Oscar Pistorius fits amongst the best mainstream runners in the world.

For athletes with higher levels of impairment, there is already a challenge around understanding of what elite performance means in real terms.

Boccia has athletes competing from 40 countries around the world, but they struggle with recognition for their achievements.

And, what about swimmers like Britain's Fran Williamson?

The Cambridge swimmer, who has cerebral palsy, has won six Paralympic medals, but where is her profile? If she had won six Olympic medals, she would be a household name.

After winning gold in the 50m backstroke in her S3 category at last year's IPC World Championships in Holland, she discovered soon after that the event would not be on the Paralympic programme in London.

From racing in four events in Athens, she competed in just two in Beijing in 2008 and now only has the 50m and 100m freestyle events to race in London.

She is disappointed by the decision, which she describes as "devastating", and admits it made her re-evaluate her future in elite sport.

"The Paralympics is meant to be about inclusion," she points out.

The International Paralympic Committee have a clear view on this. A spokesman said: "The Paralympic Games has a maximum number of medal events that it can include for each sport and we endeavour to ensure that there is a wide spectrum of sports covering a range of impairments.

"It is simply not possible or practical to organise a Games whereby each sport covers events in every single class and gender. If it was possible then the Games would take weeks to complete.

"Therefore, the sports programme for London features events and classes which have a naturally deeper pool of world-class athletes eligible for qualification and subsequent participation."

The IPC is not writing off some of the events forever but believes that individual countries need to do more to develop sport across the weaker areas.

Now as we approach the biggest Paralympic sporting event that Britain will ever host, can we, hand on heart, say that everything is being done to ensure that children with more severe impairments are getting access to sport in school, and also outside?

By missing out on these children, there could be long-term implications for the future of the GB Paralympic team.

The Games themselves should not be used as development events. The more that we can do to promote the Paralympics and the athletes across all classes, the better it is for everyone

I strongly believe that whatever happens, the Paralympics should never become the B final as this will leave a big chunk of the movement behind. We have to ensure that there is opportunity to compete at the highest level.