Truly Extra-ordinary Athletes

If they hold the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games and nobody broadcasts it, how many will even know what they've missed?

Twelve days after the 2010 Olympic Winter Games strikes its tent and leaves town following the closing ceremonies on February 28th, BC Place Stadium will host a second opening ceremony to welcome the over six hundred and fifty elite athletes from more than forty nations, who will compete at venues in Vancouver and Whistler during the ten days of the 10th Paralympic Winter Games.

Sadly, as soon as the 2010 Olympic Winter Games have become history, most of the over 10,000 journalists who clamored for Winter Olympic press accreditation will head home, their reporting completed. At the time of this writing, less than 1,400 have applied to cover the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, and though negotiations may yet prove otherwise, no broadcasters have yet committed to television coverage of the Paralympic events. In a world where if you're not on television, you're nowhere, this begs the question: if you hold a Paralympic Winter Games and nobody broadcasts it, how many will even know what they've missed?

By definition, Paralympic athletes are accustomed to overcoming daunting adversity just to be able to compete. They will no doubt be disappointed, though probably not surprised, if their 2010 competitions receive minimal media attention. The big losers from this neglect will be the majority of sports enthusiasts around the world who will not get the opportunity to watch these extraordinary athletes perform at the top of their game.

What will we be missing if broadcasters do not cover the Paralympic Games?

We would do well to remember that as much as we admired the courage and reckless abandon of the famed "Crazy Canucks" (Ken Read, Steve Podborsky, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray and Jim Hunter), Paralympic downhillers meet those same athletic challenges, on the same slopes - often on one ski or with a visual impairment! (Now, that is what I call "extreme sport!")

The roots of the Paralympic Movement can be traced to 1944, in the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit in Aylesbury, England, where neurosurgeon, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann (later knighted) began using organized sports to motivate the spinal cord-injured patients in his care (mostly young and formerly active soldiers, sailors and airmen) to exercise. The first team sport, wheelchair polo, was played in empty wards with short sticks and a disk for a puck; patients played against physiotherapists, and later against local football clubs. Injuries resulting from the fierce competition led to polo being replaced by wheelchair basketball.

Sixteen competitors participated in the first Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed on July 28, 1948, a competition that was afterward held yearly, and became international in 1952 with the addition of a Dutch team. Dr. Guttmann, considered the "Father of Sports for People with Disabilities", dreamed of an international sports competition for people with disabilities held every four years as the "equivalent of the Olympic Games." Twelve years later, his vision became a reality when 400 athletes from 23 countries took part in the 1st Paralympic Games held in Rome, Italy.

In 1976, thanks to the efforts of Canadian orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Robert F. Jackson, Toronto hosted "Torontolympiad," that was later recognized as the 5th Paralympic Summer Games. That same year, the first Paralympic Winter Games was held in Ornskoldvik, Sweden. Canada's first Paralympic Winter Games team was made up of six athletes: Rod Backie, Gerry Butterfield John Gow, Lorna Manzer, Don McGregor and Brent Munroe. Competing in alpine skiing and cross-country skiing, Canada managed to post a gold and three bronze medals in that groundbreaking Games. (For more information on the Paralympic Movement in Canada, visit www.paralympic.ca)

To make a labyrinthine story short, a non-profit international umbrella organization, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was initially formed and operated in 1989 by 162 National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) from five regions and four specific international sports federations (IOSDS). It has since evolved to become the fully democratic and inclusive sports organization we recognize today.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) are two separate organizations, representing two distinct "franchises" and "brands." Since 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway, when the Olympic Winter and Paralympic Winter Games began sharing the same host cities, the IOC and the IPC have cooperated for reasons of obvious synergy and efficiency. Today, an IPC member sits on the Evaluation Commission of the IOC and every country bidding to host an Olympic Games also bids to host the equivalent Paralympic Games. Operationally, the organizing committee for the host city (in our case in 2010, VANOC - the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) undertakes the responsibilities of staging the two separate events, sequentially, through shared venues. Even volunteers, if they wish, can lend their time and energy to both Games.

During the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, sixty-four medals will be awarded to athletes competing in five sports: alpine skiing, biathlon, cross-country skiing, ice sledge hockey and wheelchair curling; with five different classifications of those permitted to compete: athletes with a visual impairment, athletes with amputations, athletes with cerebral palsy, athletes with a spinal cord injury and a group called "Les Autres" for athletes who do not fit into the aforementioned groups. Only those with a visual impairment are ineligible to compete in sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.

Since Paralympic athletes compete based on their functional abilities, in order for athletes with different disabilities to compete fairly against one another, the once confusing plethora of detailed sub-classifications (See "Canada & Paralympic Winter Games" Table) has been streamlined since the 2006 Torino Games into three classes: Sitting, Standing and Visually Impaired. That means, for instance, that in each of the alpine skiing disciplines: Downhill, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super-G and Super Combined, medals are awarded for Men and for Women competing in Sitting, Standing and Visually Impaired categories.

For the most part, Paralympic sports are performed identically to the Winter Olympic events with which we are all familiar. One difference is equipment. In the alpine events, for instance, athletes with amputations use special poles with ski blades called "outriggers"; those with disabilities that require them to sit, use a "sit-ski or mono-ski" with a chair fitted over a single ski; and competitors with visual impairments ski as a team, with a guide providing steering directions to the athlete by voice signal or by radio.

In biathlon, certain Paralympic athletes with amputations use a rifle support when shooting, and those with visual impairments are equipped with electro-acoustic "goggles" to "sight in" on an audio signal-emitting target.

Ice sledge hockey, a fast-paced event comprised of three-fifteen minute periods, played by male athletes with physical disabilities to their lower body, is like able-bodied hockey, except that players are strapped onto metal frames that rest on two regular-sized ice skates, and use sticks with a curved blade on one end for puck-handling and shooting, and a spike on the other end for propelling and steering the sledge.

Wheelchair curling is played according to the same World Curling Federation Rules that apply to able-bodied curlers, with a few minor modifications. In a six-end game, teams must be mixed gender, and deliver stones from a stationary wheelchair, with no sweeping permitted. (Even Russ Howard would agree that kind of curling is really "Haaarrrrrrd!")

The IPC, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and VANOC are all doing their very best to raise the profile of the Paralympic Winter Games with those of us who are only now becoming aware of the athletic prowess and heroic achievements of Paralympic athletes. Leading up to the 2010 Winter Games, a visitation program that is taking Paralympic athletes into schools to explain their sports and to share other life lessons is educating our children, one classroom at a time. (For more information, visit "Paralympic Heroes" at www.paralympic.ca)

For those with internet access, the IPC is carrying key sports competitions on their website at www.paralympic.org or at www.paralympicsports.tv. Plans are in the works to "broadcast" 2010 Paralympic Winter Games events via the Web.

If you are interested in helping out, and have the time and energy to become a 2010 Paralympic Winter Games volunteer, signup today at www.vancouver2010.com or at www.workoplis.com.

If you want to help persuade television broadcasters to commit to carrying at least some coverage of the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, make your opinion known to the powers that be by writing or emailing the CTV Globemedia at www.ctv.ca and Rogers Communications at www.Rogers.com. Let the broadcasters know there is an audience out there who wants Paralympics coverage. You will be amazed at how much respect networks actually give to viewers with strongly held opinions.

In 2010, Vancouver and Whistler will host both the Winter Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games. To date our electronic, broadcast and print media has given us short shrift in their coverage of the latter. If that trend continues, most of us will never have the opportunity to appreciate the "extra-ordinary" performances of the world's elite Paralympic winter athletes in the world's second largest winter sporting event. And that would be a shame - for everybody concerned.