Rio Olympics End: A Look Back at (Para)lympians

The 2016 Olympic competitions in Rio ended this weekend.  Specifically, the Paralympics which began on September 7th, concluded on Sunday, September 18th.  Now that the games are over, I believe it is important to acknowledge the individuals who demonstrated their remarkable athletic skills in both the Olympics and the Paralympics.

The first athlete to have the drive, and with particular training, the ability, to compete in the general Olympics, in spite of his disability, was George Eyser in 1904.  Eyser, an American gymnastic who had a wooden leg, finished the games with three gold, two silver, and one bronze medal.  Eyser and other disabled athletes at the time did not compete in the Paralympics, as the Paralympics was not an athletic event until 1948 and took much longer to become the international sporting event it is now.  However, once the Paralympics came to be, according to various sources, at least fifteen athletes have participated in both the Paralympics and the Olympics.  In 2008, two Paraympians participated in the general Olympics, held in Beijing.  One, an amputee following a car accident at the age of 17, South African swimmer Natalie du Tolt, became the first amputee to qualify for the Olympic Games since 1936, while the other, Natalia Partyka, who was born without a right forearm, competed in table tennis.  (Partyka also participates in the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics.)

In 2012, South African Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who had earned multiple gold medals in disability-specific sporting events, qualified and placed 16th in the 400 meter run in Track & Field at the general Olympics, becoming the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics.  (Pistorius and his Olympic accomplishment would be laudable if, in 2014, Pistorius hadn’t been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, South African model Reeya Steenkamp).

The International Paralympics Committee has a list of “qualifying disabilities” for the Paralympics.  Although disabilities that result from a brain injury may be thought more suitable for the Special Olympics, three of these qualifying disabilities specifically apply to brain injury – hypertonia, ataxia, and athetosis.  Hypertonia is the, “abnormal increase in muscle tension and a reduced ability of a muscle to stretch, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Ataxia is the “lack of co-ordination of muscle movements due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Athetosis is “generally characterized by unbalanced, involuntary movements and a difficulty in maintaining a symmetrical posture, due to a neurological condition, such as cerebral palsy, brain injury or multiple sclerosis.”  Additionally, other paralympians may also have had a brain injury as a result of an injury that affects their neurological functioning, such as a car accident, though it is inappropriate to make this assumption.

It is a positive sign that the International Paralympics Committee recognizes that disabilities, particularly neurological conditions, don’t necessarily break one’s drive for success in whatever their passion may be and prevent them from competing in athletic events.  Still, there is government ignorance that must be dealt with; for example, the Russian Secretary General of the Russian Paralympics Committee, Andrei Strokin, said that an individual competes in the Paraympics, “because often for a disabled person it is the only chance of self-realization and achieving something in life”.  I think that the above list of athletes proves him wrong.

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