Can and Able : Disability Sports

Wheelchair Race


The 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi will be an inclusive event, with para sports held along with able-bodied events. But a global debate still rages on whether the lines between abled and disabled should be erased

South African Natalie Du Toit, whose left leg is amputated below the knee, qualified in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. She became the first athlete with a disability to qualify for the final of an event in the largest ablebodied sporting meet, the Olympics.   Natalie has won over 15 gold medals at various international events for disabled sportspersons and, in the Beijing Olympics, finished in 16th place in the 10,000 metre swim, just over 1.22 minutes behind the winner.   While a few disabled athletes do qualify to compete against the able-bodied in certain sports, the movement globally is not so much for the disabled to compete against the able-bodied as for a merging of para games with able-bodied events.

Recently, Dr Robert Steadward, one of the founders of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), created a stir when he called for the Paralympic Games to be combined with the Winter Olympics.  Such a merger would mean not only that para games are held along with ablebodied sports, but also that medals won in para games would count in the final tally of a country. Only then, believe the proponents of this move, will disability sports be taken as seriously and disabled sportspeople get as much recognition and funding as able-bodied sportspeople. The Commonwealth Games created history in 2002 by becoming the first fully inclusive international multi-sport games. This meant sporting events for people with disabilities would be held along with able-bodied sports events and have a common medal tally.

But not all persons associated with disability sports are enthusiastic about integrating disability sports with sports for the able-bodied. The debate on whether integration is desirable rages on internationally.  Dr Steadward suggested that the two games could remain separate in terms of athletes and events, but could share resources like housing and transportation. He felt such a move would reflect a new level of acceptance of people with disabilities and bring more visibility to the Paralympics, which generally garner far less media coverage than the Olympics. Dr Steadward and the present-day IPC are in agreement that the Paralympic Games being the second largest sporting event in the world with nearly 4,000 participants makes it logistically impossible for any one city to host them simultaneously with the summer Olympics. That’s why Dr Steadward suggests clubbing them with the winter Games.

However, the IPC does not agree with Dr Steadward’s case for integration. Steffi Klein, who handles media and communications for IPC, explains that the committee believes that “the Paralympic Games and the Paralympics Movement with its mission, vision and values can and should stand on its own, staging a great sport event for elite athletes with a disability”.   Combining medal tallies would not make sense in this case, she added. While admitting there’s much less public interest in the Paralympics than in the Olympics, Klein pointed out that awareness, acceptance of and public interest in the Paralympics Games had grown significantly over the last decade.

The International Olympic Committee too cites “institutional, technical and organisational difficulties” for not merging the two events. “The leaders of sports for those with a disability themselves do not want this integration. They have received the names Olympic and Paralympic — this proves that the IOC considers them as athletes in their own right,” says Emmanuelle Moreau, Head of Media Relations IOC. Moreau adds that IOC does not keep medal tallies and that the practice of media outlets providing medal tallies was independent of the IOC.

It’s been a long journey for the Paralympics from being separate events to ones held in the same city and the same venue as the main Games, though not fully merged. While the two were always held in the same year, since Paralympics 1988 and Winter Paralympics 1992 they have also  taken place at the same venue. And in June 2001, the IOC and IPC signed an agreement securing this practice for the future, which meant that from the 2012 bid process onwards, the host city chosen to host the Olympic Games would be obliged to also host the Paralympics.   Even for the CWG, becoming fully integrated was a huge progress from 1994 when athletes were first included just in exhibition events. And now, integrated games have become the accepted and established policy for the CWG.

The number of disability sport demonstration events at major sporting events is increasing as integration makes inroads on a sport-by-sport basis. While full integration of the Olympics and Paralympics might seem a long way off, more communication and integration between disabled and able-bodied sporting organisations across the world is leading to a steady breaking down of barriers. For instance, in countries like the UK the same bodies now handle able-bodied and disabled sportspersons for their disciplines. This is a big step from the earlier practice of keeping   the two separate.



Richard M Hansen, Canada’s globe-girding wheelchair athlete and Paralympian is one of ccthe strongest advocates for integration. He tells TOI-Crest why segregration has to end

Why do you advocate merging disabled sports with able bodied sports?

Sometimes it is the right thing to do, to create sport opportunities for people with disabilities in segregated games. But it creates a perception that people with disabilities are less than equal. It’s contrary to the universal values of accessibility and inclusiveness. By creating sporting events where all athletes can compete together, we help break down barriers of segregation. I see sport as a mirror of how society views itself, its social values and behaviours. At the heart of an athlete is the desire is to be included and feel part of a sporting environment. We need better opportunities to better serve the athletes. The question we need to ask is — are we encouraging existing attitudes instead of breaking down barriers?

Why do international sports organisations like the IOC and others continue to insist on segregating games?

The IPC and other organisers should be commended for providing a vehicle for athletes with disabilities to express themselves and strive for their hopes and dreams. As an athlete who has benefited from these games, I feel so fortunate that these organisations have been there and that they provided me with the opportunity to be a gold medalist. I think segregation comes from a perspective of convenience and the desire to help people with disabilities participate in all aspects  of life. A separate set of games accomplishes that objective.

What is the biggest hurdle to merging disability sports with able-bodied sports? How can they be overcome?

I think the biggest hurdle is communication between the organisers of the sports for people with disabilities and the mainstream games organisers. Dialogue would lead to a more similar vision and a common bond. Basically, a collaboration as opposed to a segregation or competition.

What is your opinion about the Commonwealth Games where the integration has happened? Are there other major sporting events where successful merging has already happened?

The Commonwealth Games are a wonderful model of integration, the beginning of a merging journey that has taken many decades. It went from a culture of indifference in 1994 to formal acceptance in 2002. I’ve heard from a number of athletes who characterise the Commonwealth Games as the greatest experience in their athletic life. Being able to participate with full medal status and feel fully included is a huge breakthrough. The Commonwealth Games are a democratic organisation and the member nations voted to provide full medal status for all athletes.  It was a grassroots movement that came from all over the world. The Canada Summer and Winter Games are fully inclusive along with various European and World Championships. I think the more opportunities available to the athletes, the better.

Is it logistically possible to merge disability sports with able-bodied sports? Can a regular sporting event successfully handle the various categories that exist in disabled sports?

I think this has been answered in the past. A question for organisers is — can they afford to logistically stage two separate games? Is that the most ideal model? Ask the athletes and answers will emerge. There is no right or wrong model, just a reflection on where we are on our journey.

What do you see as the future of disabled sports? How do you plan to work towards making it happen?

Sports aren’t disabled. The athletes who participate in them are extremely bright, driven, and have exceptional talent and spirit along with a disability. Like a powerful force of water towards the ocean, it makes many pathways until it reaches its goal. Athletes are athletes first and just want true acceptance, to be honoured and appreciated like their peers.

In The Running

  • 1924 The International Silent Games held in Paris for the hearing impaired were the first recorded games for any group of people with disabilities. The Deaflympics are held every four years like the Olympic Games 1948 Dr Ludwig Guttmann founded the Stoke Mandeville Games in England. It was a sports competition for British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries. From then on, the Stoke Mandeville Games became an annual event
  • 1952 Competitors from the Netherlands joined the competition. It gave birth to the idea of Parallel Olympics (or Paralympics) 1955 The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognised the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ICSD) and the Deaflympics
  • 1960 The International Stoke Mandeville Games were held for the first time in the same country and city as the Summer Olympics (in Rome). For the first time, they were open to all athletes with disabilities from all over the world, not just veterans. This is described as the First Paralympic Games. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the governing body of the global Paralympic movement, started organising both Summer and Winter Paralympics every four years like the Olympic Games
  • 1968 The idea of sports for athletes with intellectual disabilities was conceived by the Special Olympics Movement

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