Today, images of athletes with a disability are becoming more commonplace. Stories appear in the sports section (not just the human interest section). Athletes with a disability earn money for competing and have sponsors for their athletic endeavors. They serve as commentators for sports events, and the premiere international sporting events that include athletes with a disability get coverage on national television.The president of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was voted into membership on the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Elite international and national competitions for athletes with a disability are held regularly; they include the International Paralympics Games, Deaflympics, International Special Olympics, and numerous sport specific world championships. International and national organizations governing these competitions have emerged throughout the world. Rules governing competitions, sports, athlete eligibility and classification, doping in sport, and more have become more defined.
The records held by elite athletes with a disability are seconds or tenths of seconds behind those of elite able-bodied athletes in such sports as downhill skiing, swimming, and track events. Athletes with double leg amputations finish the 100-meter race under 11 seconds (10.85 seconds). Elite male wheelchair marathoners complete marathons in under 90 minutes, frequently averaging 3.5 minutes per mile. Female wheelchair marathoners often finish in 1:49 (Paralympian 2000). In field events athletes with single leg amputations have jumped 6 feet, 8 inches.
Sport has become a viable entity for youth with a disability: Athletic role models exist for aspiring young athletes, and community and recreation centers provide opportunities for these individuals. Interscholastic athletic competition in wheelchair basketball exists. Athletes with a disability have appeared on the Wheaties box and have become celebrities. Disability sport is an entity whose time has finally come.
Defining Disability Sport
Throughout its history, many terms have been used to describe sport participation by individuals with a disability: handicapped sports, sport for the disabled, adapted sport, disabled sport, wheelchair sport, blind sport, and deaf sport. The most recent, and widely accepted, term is disability sport. DePauw and Gavron (2005) define disability sport as “sport that has been designed for or specifically practiced by athletes with disabilities. Disability sports might include sports that were designed for a selected disability group: goalball for blind athletes, wheelchair basketball for athletes with physical impairments who use a wheelchair, or sitting volleyball for athletes with lower-limb impairments. Disability sport also includes those sports practiced by able-bodied individuals (e.g., athletics, volleyball, swimming, etc.) that have been modified or adapted to include athletes with disabilities (e.g., wheelchair tennis, tandem cycling) as well as those that require little or no modification to allow individuals with disabilities to participate (e.g., athletics, wrestling, swimming).”
Many athletes with hearing impairments and deafness do not consider themselves a part of the disability community or disability sport.Without wishing to offend, I include mention of deaf athletes and deaf sport for the readers who might not know that sport opportunities for deaf individuals exist.
Individuals with a disability have participated in sport for more than one hundred years dating back to the late nineteenth century. The initial sport experiences and opportunities were quite limited until the 1940s. Sport opportunities for athletes with a disability now span the continuum from recreational sports to elite competitive sports.
In recorded history deaf athletes were among the first individuals to participate in sport through the Sports Club for the Deaf founded in Berlin in 1888. The first international competition for deaf athletes was held in Paris in 1924 at the same time that the Comité Internationale des Sports des Sourds (CISS), or International Sports Committee for the Deaf, was founded. Competitions for deaf athletes, known initially as the World Games for the Deaf and now known as the Deaflympics, have been held every four years since.The CISS was recognized by the International Olympic Committee in 1955 and has national affiliated associations throughout the world.
The significant impact of the aftermath of the world wars is seen in the development of sport rehabilitation programs.The most notable of these was developed in the 1940s by Sir Ludwig Guttman of Stoke Mandeville, England, who first introduced competitive sports as an integral part of the rehabilitation of disabled veterans. The International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation (ISMGF) was formed by Guttman in 1960 to sanction all international competition for individuals with spinal cord injuries.
Competitive teams of wheelchair athletes emerged across the European continent and spread to the United States in 1949 when the first national wheelchair basketball tournament was held at the University of Illinois. This precipitated the founding of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) that would ultimately become the governing body for wheelchair basketball in the United States.
During the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, international sport competitions were expanded to include other disability groups not eligible for the World Games for the Deaf or international wheelchair competitions. These included the following:
- International Sports Organization for the Disabled (ISOD) (1964)
- Special Olympics International (1968)
- International Cerebral Palsy Society (1968)
- Cerebral Palsy International Sports & Recreation Association (CP-ISRA) (1978; reorganized as U.S. Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association, 1986)
- International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) (1981)
In 1982, CP-ISRA, IBSA, ISMGF, and ISOD came together to form the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) to coordinate disability sport worldwide and to negotiate with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on behalf of athletes with a disability. In addition to the four founding member organizations, CISS and Federation for Sports for Persons with Mental Handicaps (INAS-FMH) joined the ICC in the 1980s. The ICC served as a fragile alliance of international sport federations and experienced an uneasy history during the years between 1982 and 1987 (DePauw and Gavron 2005). Following the Arnhem Seminar in 1987 and the subsequent meeting in Dusseldorf, Germany, on 21 September 1989, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) was born.
International Paralympic Committee (IPC)
The International Paralympic Committee, the umbrella multidisability organization for elite sport for athletes with a disability, has the primary responsibility to organize, supervise, and coordinate the Paralympic Games and other multidisability elite sports competitions. The purposes of the IPC include organizing the Paralympics and Multi-Disability World Games.
The Paralympics have a historical connection to the Olympic Games. As early as 1960, an attempt was made to hold the Paralympic Games in the same country (and city) and same year of the Olympic Games (e.g., Rome, 1960).The Olympic flag has flown over the Paralympic Games since the International Games for the Disabled were held in NewYork in 1984. Since the Summer Paralympic Games in South Korea in 1988, the Summer andWinter Paralympic Games have been officially held in the same city, following shortly after the Olympic Games and making use of the same facilities. Today, the bidding process for hosting future Olympic Games includes a formal bid for organizing the Paralympic Games as well. Relationships between the IPC and IOC were formalized in 2000 through IPC representation in selected IOC commissions, financial assistance to the IPC by the IOC, and official membership on the IOC by the IPC president (Paralympian 2000).
Elite International Competitions
There are three major international competitions: Paralympics, Deaflympics, and Special Olympics.
The term Paralympics comes from combining the Latin word para meaning “next to” or “with” and “Olympics” (DePauw and Gavron 2005). The chronology of the Paralympic Games can be traced to Sir Ludwig Guttman, who founded the First Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed in 1948. Four years later, the first international competition for wheelchair athletes was held at Stoke Mandeville, with teams from Britain and the Netherlands competing. Since then, summer international competitions for athletes with a disability have been held every four years, with increases in the number of sports, the number of athletes, and type of disability. Competitions in winter sports, which began in 1976, have followed a similar pattern.
The Deaflympics (formerly known as the World Games for the Deaf) are a quadrennial event that includes both summer and winter games (Stewart and Ammons 2001) usually conducted the year after the Olympic Games. The Summer Deaflympics includes competitions in athletics, badminton, basketball, cycling, marathon, shooting, soccer, and swimming. The Winter Deaflympics includes Nordic skiing, speed skating, Alpine skiing, and hockey.
In 1968 Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics to benefit individuals with mental retardation and hosted the first International Special Olympic Games at Soldier Field, Chicago. These competitions are held every two years, alternating between theWinter and Summer Games. Special Olympics also includes year-round programming for athletes with intellectual disabilities. (The sports included on the program of these elite international competitions are shown in Table 1.)
Sports Offered in International Competitions Table 1.
Issues and Controversies
A number of issues and controversies have arisen along with the emergence of disability sport since the late nineteenth century. Athletes with a disability have benefited by the technological advances, improved training techniques, and the assistance of coaches and sports medicine personnel. The controversies have included classification systems, inclusion, ethical dilemmas, and drug testing and doping.
Classification is related to the underlying philosophy of disability sport. For some the goal of classification is to enable each competitor, regardless of severity of impairment, to compete in a fair manner with others of similar ability/disability (a more medical-based classification system). For others the goal of classification is to provide for meaningful athletic competition based on ability, not disability. In this instance of emphasis on ability and less on adaptation/modification of the sport, the more severely impaired are more likely to be eliminated from elite athletic competition.This latter goal of classification has emerged partly because of the administrative problem and logistics of numerous classes for competitions.
Classification of athletes with a disability for competition has been a long-standing controversy, particularly for the Paralympic Games. Prior to the 1990s, a medical classification system was used to assign athletes with physical and sensory impairments to numerous “classes” for competition (e.g., 50 and 100-meter races by gender and disability type—3 for blind, 8 for cerebral palsy, 9 for amputee, 6 for les autres, 7 for wheelchair users). With pressure to reduce the number of classes in major competitions, the medical system finally gave way in the 1990s to the functional classification system used in the Paralympic movement.
Classification remains a hotly debated topic within the Paralympic movement today. Integrated or functional classification systems will continue to be examined and refined for use in international competitions.
INCLUSION AND INTEGRATION
One can argue that classification is primarily a concern for the fairness of competitions among athletes with a disability. But central to sport and disability in the broader context is the issue of competition with able-bodied athletes and the inclusion of athletes with a disability in elite sport competitions (e.g., Olympics).This issue manifests itself in two distinct ways: the inclusion of disability sport events within competitions for able-bodied athletes and competition between athletes with a disability and ablebodied athletes.
Over the years athletes with a disability have experienced selected “inclusion” within the Olympic arena. Athletes have been included in exhibition events at the Summer and Winter Olympics. The IOC granted approval to use the term Paralympics. Full medal events for athletes with a disability were incorporated into the Commonwealth Games.
But the question of integrating athletes with a disability into international competitions remains somewhat controversial. A growing number of athletes with a disability advocate the inclusion of events for athletes with a disability within major international competitions such as the Olympic Games, Pan American Games,World University Games, and Commonwealth Games. Others question this approach because it would eliminate the more severely disabled athletes from international competition.
The dilemma continues. Inasmuch as disability remains an important factor (for both the IPC and the Olympic Games organizers), the events selected will be limited to selected athletes with a disability, and specific disabilities in particular.
ETHICS, DRUG TESTING, AND DOPING
Unfortunately, disability sport is not immune to the ethical issues that are apparent in able-bodied elite sport. Boosting due to autonomic dysreflexia can result in enhanced performance and has been reported to have occurred during competitions.Thus, boosting and doping have become important considerations in team and athlete management. Drug testing now occurs regularly at international competitions for athletes with a disability. Equipment modifications for wheelchair and other assistive devices are also ripe for manipulation in an effort to win. These and other ethical issues for Paralympians will continue to be present long into the future.
The fight against doping has become important for disability sport, especially the Paralympic athletes. Similar to the IOC, the IPC has taken a strong stance against doping and has developed and implemented policies and procedures to prevent the use of performance enhancing drugs by athletes with a disability.The IPC Medical and Anti-Doping Code has developed a list of the prohibited substances and has identified penalties for violations. Currently, the IPC is working closely with the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to develop a testing program and an educational program designed to prevent doping in disability sport.
Disability sport has been influenced by the elite sport movement and has been shaped by the political, social, and economic factors of society’s cultural contexts. According to DePauw and Gavron (2005), the historical trends include the following:
- A vertical structure of sport with extensive developmental sports programs for individuals with a disability leading toward a national-level and international-level competitive structure for elite athletes with disabilities
- Establishment of multidisability national and international sport organizations as the governing bodies for disability sport with strong links to and within the national and international sport structure (organized more by sport than by disability)
- Increased emphasis on high levels of athletic excellence and high standards for performance
- Increased specialization within sport among athletes with a disability and fewer athletes being able to participate in multiple events
- Classification and competitions becoming more sport specific and ability oriented than disability specific
- Increased numbers of individuals with a disability (adults, youth, seniors) pursuing sport programs
- Increased concern for equity in sport opportunities for girls and women with a disability and increasing attention to issues of race and socioeconomic status
- Inclusion of athletes with a disability within major international competitions such as the Olympic Games and world championships
- Inclusion of persons with a disability within the structure of disability sport as well as coaches, officials, and administrators
- Increased public awareness and acceptance of athletes with a disability and of sport as a viable option for youth
Disability sport has made its mark on society.Today, athletes with a disability have a far greater number of opportunities for sport participation and competitions than in any other time in history. Sport will be an avenue for youth with a disability in the same way that sport serves the able-bodied youth. Sport opportunities for and including individuals with a disability will continue to increase into the twenty-first century, and disability sport will be viewed as sport.
Karen P. DePauw
See also Adapted Physical Education; Deaflympics; Paralympics; Special Olympics