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The first time a world champion, gold medal-winning athlete uttered the words, it seemed too wrong to be possible. We were discussing a recent World Cup competition they had won for an article I was writing. I could tell they were frustrated by something, I asked what was up, and they spilled:
They begged me to clarify in my writing that they were a Paralympic competitor. A world champion. A Paralympic medalist. A college grad with an advanced degree.
Okaaay, epic resume...so what am I missing here?
My mind did not compute that plea. Wait, what?
What do you mean, Special Olympics?
In my mind, there was, is, and always shall be, zero confusion about those two competitions and sets of athletes. Like knowing that spaghetti and a Subaru are different.
The Paralympians are elite-level athletes, competing in Summer and Winter types of sports in the Paralympics. It is a parallel level of interntaional competition and national organization to the Olympics. The athletes have been through things in life, competing with blindness, paralysis, amputations, and other forms of physical issues. They use modified equipment for competition, working at a high level with adaptations.
The 2020 Paralympics start competition Tuesday in Tokyo and will be using most of the same facilities from the Olympics. And starting with these Games, Team USA's Paralympic medal winners will receive the same amount of bonus money ($37,500 for gold, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze) as American Olympians. YAY!)
The Special Olympics is a global organization providing sports opportunities for athletes with cognitive and intellectual issues. It’s an amazing movement that has raised societal awareness and done profound capacity building for that underserved group. The Special Olympics Games’ aim, according to their website, is to provide “physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship with the world.”
They're not the same as the Paralympics or Olympics, and they're not meant to be.
Now that is all laid down, let’s talk.
I’ve covered the Olympics for 25 years. I started writing more about the Paralympics around 2000, when local competitors in my coverage area made Team USA. My true immersion has come over the past four years, as I have been writing Paralympic athlete and sport feature stories for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s website. I’ve lost the exact count, but it would be safe to say I’ve written over 100 articles in the Paralympic space. I’ve been focused on the two-year journey to the Tokyo Paralympics, talking to the Para athletes who have been juggling full-time jobs or school, intensive training, family and then trying to keep it all going through the COVID-19 pandemic. Most do not make enough money from competing to be full-time only athletes. The institutional levels of funding and support do not yet match the Olympic side. Our Paralympians hustle to find sponsors, get on Team USA’s national rosters for coaching and some support, and do their thing.
A decent amount of the Paralympians are veterans, coming back from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas with life-changing injuries. The VA, and other veterans’ support groups, use sports to help support ongoing physical, mental, and emotional therapies. The love of sports and competition, and their obvious skill, brings them to the elite Para level.
American Para stars, such as cyclist/Nordic medalist Oksana Masters, track's reigning queen of speed, Tatyana McFadden, and blazing swimmer Jessica Long have been the focus of tremendous national ad campaigns. If this Toyota Super Bowl commercial with Long doesn’t do you in, go see the Grinch for a bigger heart. Corporate money is starting to stream into the Para space, in a way more than just throwing them as an add-on into an Olympic ad. They're are getting their own time to shine and create a brand.
However, the reality that the public, especially here in the U.S., remains ignorant of the Paralympic movement - to the point of mixing it up with the Special Olympics – is awful. It is more than ignorance; it is straight up denial of what an athlete looks like. Missing a limb or sight or living with a TBI is completely compatible with being able to set world records in the pool, shoot a 3, or lay down serious speed on a velodrome. Bodies are not a monolith, and neither is the path to gold medal success.
The limited ones are us. The public.
Nearly every Para athlete I have interviewed has the same story. They tell people they are going to Tokyo, or to a World Cup in Europe, or to a U.S. championship. They tell people they are in dedicated, elite training for cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, etc. They wear the official Team USA gear, which you only get by earning your spot as one of the best.
And people still mix it up with Special Olympics. All. The. Time.
Or worse, some make a comment that they don’t “seem disabled”. As if that makes things…better?
I think of Monica Sereda, who is on Team USA as a first-time Paralympian as a road cyclist. She is a U.S. Army veteran. A car crash caused a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and spinal damage, meaning, you are not going to see her injury. We talked before she left for Tokyo (good luck in your races Monica!) and she hilariously said that she was “straightening people out left and right” about what Paralympics. Her elite ability to road race on her trike is her way of representing her country, and she now proudly wears the U.S. uniform again for the world to see.
Monica doesn’t play. Nor should she. Nobody that survived the last year of complications, disappointments, and cancelations to still make it to Tokyo has come to play. They’ve come to win.
Media coverage of the Paralympics lags far behind the Olympics. The smaller-than-usual global media posse that was pretty much locked in their hotel rooms, busses and arena workrooms in Tokyo for the Olympics has gone home. Few are coming back for the Paralympics, which is sad.
NBC is doing stronger job covering the games on its channels and online. But will it be on primetime on NBC’s main legacy channel, the same way we saw swimming or gymnastics at few weeks ago? Nope. The footprint is bigger than in the past, but yet much smaller than the Olympics.
I am going to make this easy: Here’s the broadcast schedule. Go check stuff out. If you enjoy sports, you will love these athletes. If you like hearing about interesting athletes who have worked their asses off through some serious life stuff, this is your joint.
But whatever you do, please cut the ignorance or denial. This isn’t some sideshow spectacle or JV scrimmage.
These are amazing, world class athletes who have come to win.
The least you can do is appreciate them, and watch.
Thanks for reading Open Court. Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions! See you next Monday!