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Paralympics and other athletes with disabilities, and representation

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The past few weeks had me thinking about athletes with disabilities. They have been in the news a lot lately. My thoughts are rather jumbled because this is a group of athletes I rarely think about. It’s a shame; there are some great athletes doing amazing things, and as a good feminist I should be considering all kinds of diversity, not just the people who identify as women. In approximate chronological order:

Terry Fox – this Canadian icon was in the spotlight in late January when protesters in Ottawa decorated/desecrated (depending on your perspective) the statue of him right across from Parliament Hill. Fox famously ran the equivalent of a marathon a day all the way from Newfoundland to Thunder Bay in in 1980, to raise money for cancer research. That was 143 marathons, before the cancer that cost him a leg returned and killed him a few months later, at the age of 22.

Steve Fonyo, another young man who lost a leg to cancer and finished Terry Fox’s cross-country run to raise funds for cancer research, died a couple of weeks ago. He struggled with addiction and had several criminal convictions, which have tainted his legacy. He reminds me that a person is much more than their disability, or how they respond to it.

Both those young men achieved something I never dreamed of doing. Both were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. But from the 1985, when Fonyo completed his run, until 2004, I don’t recall hearing of a single athlete with a disability. 2004 was the year Chantal Peticlerc had an astounding Paralympic Games in Barcelona, winning five gold medals plus an exhibition event. It was her fourth Paralympics, and she had won multiple medals at all of them.

The next big news story is the Paralympics going on in Beijing right now. Remember that? I am sad to say I don’t know the names of the flag bearers, or any of the other athletes. I confess I haven’t been tracking the results anywhere nearly as closely as I did for the earlier winter games. Paralympic sports are complicated, with various classifications depending on the level of disability. There are no pro teams, or even big endorsement deals, so these athletes are virtually unknown to most of us.

Two Paralympics stories I have been following relate to representation. The first is the fate of the Russian and Belarusian Paralympic teams, which were banned from participating even as neutral athletes with no identifying flags or colours, following the invasion of Ukraine, Regardless of the reasons, I can’t underestimate the crushing disappointment this must have been to athletes who rarely get an opportunity to be on the world stage. They cynic in me notes that the invasion didn’t happen until just after the Beijing Winter Olympics, so those athletes did not face the same sanctions.

The other story of representation is the number of female Paralympics. Overall, they make up just under 25% of all athletes at the games. In comparison, 45% of athletes at the Beijing Winter Olympics were women. This gender gap is even more pronounced among coaches, technicians and guides.

Among the Canadian women, at least, there is determination to make change by inspiring girls with their podium finishes, and then becoming coaches themselves after they retire from competition. Big wins alone won’t make the difference, as Mollie Jepsen, gold medallist in the standing downhill ski event said this week “The more representation in sport, the better. The more people that younger athletes can look up and see like, ‘Whoa, that’s a girl, and she’s out there doing that’ — I think just no matter what, the more females we have in sport, the better”.

Mollie Jepsen, in a red and white outfit, skis down a snow covered hill.

Concluding thoughts: this is an area where I really see my biases. I want to be more attentive to the achievement of these athletes, but I find it hard to connect outside my natural tribe of women athletes. Is it okay not to love them? I feel guilty, even though I refuse to feel guilty about many other biases in the sporting world (I also don’t love professional tennis, golf, baseball or football, but still like the Toronto Maple Leafs).

Can I make more of an effort to learn more about these sports? I could probably do that. Now is a good time to try, while there are clips of great performances readily available on-line, along with profiles of many athletes. Hopefully others will do the same. To take Mollie’s words a step further, the more people we have saying “whoa, she’s out there doing that” and the more fans we have following the sport, the better.

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