Imagine this: a young boy is starting a new year of school. As parents sign their kids up for after-school sports, this boy is upset because he wants to play hockey, but there aren’t any hockey teams around. His gym teacher hears him complaining about this and tells him not to be upset, that there will be an opportunity for him to play hockey when he’s older. The gym teacher proceeds to tell him about the National Hockey League (NHL), and how when he’s older he too could play with these other lovers of hockey.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, I had nearly this exact conversation with a gym teacher. Instead of hockey, it was wheelchair basketball; instead of the NHL, it was the paralympics.
My desire to play wheelchair basketball came mostly from a lack of knowledge about wheelchair sports. In reality, I would’ve been terrible at wheelchair basketball because I would’ve been playing with people who had normal upper body strength. For some reason, however, this teacher was trying to convince me, the incredible human ragdoll, that I could be a paralympic wheelchair basketball player. Sure, Jan.
Many people don’t see a problem with this approach. The teacher was just encouraging me, right? What’s the big deal? Well, there’s a few problems with this line of thinking.
Paralympians are world-class athletes
Like their olympic counterparts, paralympians are the absolute top-tier athletes in their sports. They train for years, and they travel the world competing just for the chance to qualify for the paralympics. It’s also more common for paralympic athletes to be multi-sport athletes, so unlike olympians, many of these athletes are top-tier athletes in very different sports. The holder of both the titles Most Decorated U.S. Paralympian and Most Medals Won in a Single Paralympics, Oksana Masters has won a whopping 17 medals across her four sports (rowing, cycling, nordic skiing, and biathlon) and has competed at the paralympics every two years since 2012. She’s perhaps the greatest athlete competing today, yet people still see no distinction between someone like her and an average disabled person. The idea that any disabled person can be a paralympian is ludicrous, but it’s also an idea that’s annoyingly persistent.
This idea was exploited by U.S. Congressman Madison Cawthorn to further his political ambitions. Cawthorn’s bio contained the claim that he was set to compete in the 400-meter dash at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo (prior to the event being postponed), but was forced to drop out due to worsening disability. He also claimed on social media that he was close to breaking the 100 meter dash world record. Most of the media reported this information as fact, but talking to a single paralympian would have told them that:
Cawthorn wasn’t registered in the database of paralympic athletes, which is required for international competition.
Cawthorn didn’t attend a single qualifying race.
One race Cawthorn claimed to attend, the U.S. Open, doesn’t exist.
Another race Cawthorn claimed he would’ve attended had his disability not worsened, the Peachtree Road Race, isn’t a qualifying event like he claimed, but a casual turkey trot that anyone can participate in.
Additionally, Cawthorn claimed he likely would’ve won the Peachtree race, but this is extremely unlikely. The wheelchair division of the race that year was won by Daniel Romanchuk, who currently holds the world record for the fastest marathon completed in a racing chair.
Cawthorn’s own videos of him training show him going far too slow to come close to a world record.
Cawthorn said he’d be competing in the 400-meter dash in Tokyo, but then said he’d break the world record for the 100-meter dash in Tokyo.
The college where Cawthorn claimed to be on the track-and-field team doesn’t have any adaptive sports.
I could write a whole post about Cawthorn (and I may do that), but if you hadn’t figured it out by now, he made the whole thing up. Most of the media, however, never tried to confirm any of his story. The first outlet to expose Cawthorn’s lies was The Nation, who published an article with interviews from multiple paralympians. All other outlets reporting on the story (which was very few) used those same quotes, not even bothering to conduct their own interviews.
Had Cawthorn been a nondisabled politician making claims this outlandish, the media would’ve had a field day with him, yet somehow they believed his claims. This is really telling of the fact that nondisabled people believe that any moderately fit disabled person can be a paralympian.
Someone of my ability would likely never be a paralympian
While I have the utmost respect for paralympians, I have some issues with the games themselves. With a couple of exceptions (looking at you, boccia ball), the sports included in the paralympics tend to require huge amounts of physical strength, making them popular with paraplegics and amputees. Absent are the sports designed for people who use power chairs. Sports like wheelchair fencing are included, but are missing the division of competition for power chair users. Other sports like power wheelchair hockey or power soccer are excluded entirely.
Power soccer (which I play and know the most about) is the largest power wheelchair sport in the world. The last world cup, held in 2017, consisted of 10 of 21 registered national teams, and this was prior to the establishment of power soccer in Mexico, with efforts currently underway to develop the sport in 18 other countries. Clearly, there’s enough power soccer on an international scale to warrant inclusion in the paralympics. Why, then, has power soccer been rejected as a paralympic sport three times? The sport isn’t considered competitive enough.
This obsession the paralympics have with only platforming physically strong athletes is problematic, but it also shows the harm that comes from trying to convince someone of my ability that being a paralympian is a realistic thing. It would be one thing if they were trying to convince a kid who plays power soccer to advocate for the sport’s inclusion in the paralympics, but that isn’t what’s happening here. And no, I’m not saying people should crush a kid’s dream just because it’s not realistic. I’m saying people shouldn’t introduce an unrealistic dream just for it to get crushed.
You don’t start a sport at an international level
Most olympic gymnasts start training before they even start school. Swimmers reach the competitive level before their teenage years. Why do people think disabled people can just start at the paralympics? It goes back to the amount of respect we give to paralympians. We find them inspirational, sure, but we don’t always consider them athletes. We love to see their moments of triumph at the paralympics, but we don’t acknowledge or respect the work that it took to get to that moment.
All sports require training and dedication to master, which starts way, way before the international level. Claiming that someone with no access to a sport can grow up to compete internationally in that support is completely illogical. We’d never imply that a nondisabled athlete can just start a sport at an international level (unless it’s curling; we love to dunk on curling), so it’s disrespectful to make these statements about disabled athletes.
The lack of access to sports is still there
Most kids who play sports aren’t going to become professional athletes, but that doesn’t mean playing sports is a waste of time. These sports give kids opportunities to be active, socialize with other kids, and experience healthy competition. In many places, however, disabled kids aren’t getting these opportunities. The existence of Major League Baseball doesn’t eliminate the need for Little League. We need Little League for disabled kids as well (metaphorically speaking, as not everyone wants to play baseball).
I’d like to also address Special Olympics, which does provide competitive opportunities to disabled kids and adults; however, only individuals with intellectual disabilities can compete. These individuals also deserve these opportunities, but we can’t use the existence of a service for one marginalized group to ignore the lack of a service for another.
For many disabled kids who participate in sports, their only option is to participate alongside nondisabled kids, figuring it out as they go. Jen Bricker-Bauer, an elite power tumbler turned aerial acrobat, spent her entire competitive career competing with and against nondisabled athletes. Being born without legs, she couldn’t absorb the force of her landings, so she’d get points deducted for bouncing too much.
She and her coach spent a lot of time finding ways to not bounce, but the other athletes didn’t have to reinvent the wheel like this. She also chose not to move to a higher level of competition at one point because there were required skills that just weren’t possible without legs. Despite all this, there were no other options for her to compete in gymnastics (side note, if you’ve never heard of Jen, I highly recommend reading her story; it’s WILD).
I did something similar when I got a bit older and started taking taekwondo. I did everything on my hands and knees, with varying levels of success. I had to figure out how to do everything on my own. I did it less for the competition than the recreation aspects, but I did attend two competitions. One was for nondisabled athletes (I got a silver medal), and the other was for disabled athletes, though I was the only one who crawled while competing (I got a gold and two silver medals). Still, I think it would’ve been so much better if I didn’t have to learn and adapt moves at the same time.