Athletes with High Support Needs at the Paralympic Games (Part 2): The Squeeze on Athlete Numbers.

Athletes with High Support Needs by definition require greater support in order to participate in their chosen sport. This means that they face far more barriers to getting involved in and reaching the elite level in their chosen sport, than their more functionally able counterparts. Add to this that there are probably less of them worldwide to start with and it is unsurprising that the number of AHSN making it to the elite level in sport is relatively small compared to the number of athletes with a disability as a whole. Therefore, when events such as those that happened in Barcelona occur it is usually the events for AHSN that are hardest hit by deletions or being combined with more functionally able athletes thereby negating any possible chance they might have had of a medal. This in turn negatively impacts on the motivation of these athletes to continue to train and compete, which can lead to even fewer AHSN being available to compete (Wilhite, 2002). Several events have occurred over the last couple of decades in order to try and counteract the perceived decreasing opportunities for AHSN to take part in the Paralympic Games. These include the setting up of a standing committee within IPC in 2004 to specifically look out for the welfare and needs of AHSN within the Paralympic family. In addition sports for specific groups of AHSN such as Boccia (CP athletes) and Wheelchair Rugby (tetraplegic athletes) were added to the Paralympic programme in order to provide opportunities for these athletes. However, even with sports such as wheelchair rugby, which is specifically for AHSN, some authors are concerned that the most severely disabled are being overlooked in the pursuit of ‘sporting excellence’ and success. Players in wheelchair rugby are given a points score (0.5 – most disabled to 3.5 – least disabled) with each team only allowed to have four players totalling no more than eight points on court at any one time. Schreiner and Strohkendl (2006) claim that wheelchair rugby is dominated on court by high point players (3 – 3.5 points) due to the fact that the eight point team limit favours their inclusion and that this has lead to the continuous decline of low point players within the sport in recent years. This clearly demonstrates the tension within the Paralympic movement of trying to move towards an elite sporting model that matches societal perceptions and understandings of what sport should look like, and providing sporting opportunities at the elite level for all their constituent members.

One more issue for AHSN in this area raised by Lepore et al (2007) is the perception by some AHSN that they do not really feel welcome by the more functionally able athletes at the Paralympic Games. Lepore et al (2007; p.271) state that ‘Athletes with more severe disabilities feel that the more elite athletes with disabilities are embarrassed to compete at the same Games as them’. This is a perception that seems at least partially borne out by the quotation by Ina quoted in Brittain (2004; p.443) where she claims to be embarrassed to have had to travel on the same aeroplane as the Boccia players. This not only highlights that disabled people are just as capable of being disablist as anyone else, but also is another possible reason why so few AHSN feel motivated enough to try and make it to the elite level in sport. However, it should also be pointed out that the very wording of the quotation above by Lepore et al (2007) smacks of the very same disablist undertones in that it describes the athletes that supposedly are embarrassed to compete alongside AHSN as ‘more elite’ rather than more functionally able. This, therefore, clearly aligns elitism with relative functional ability i.e. the more functionally able a person is (stronger, higher, faster) the more ‘elite’ they are considered.

Athletes with High Support Needs in Beijing, 2008.

Table 1 (below) shows the distribution of AHSN by continental association as well as splitting the totals into physical disabilities and blind athletes who require a guide. This highlights one final issue with regard to opportunities for AHSN to participate in the Paralympic Games, that of the ability of their relevant NPC to afford to provide the necessary extra support (guide, carer etc) necessary for an individual AHSN. Given the choice between taking an extra athlete or paying for a guide or a carer to accompany an AHSN NPCs on tight budgets are more likely to take another more functionally able athlete in order to increase their chances of gaining medals – on which most NPCs future funding is based. This is, of course, also partly dependent upon the how many places the Delegation Quota System (DQS) employed by IPC allows a particular country to take to a particular Games. The DQS does allow for NPCs to take additional staff to a Games to meet the additional needs of AHSN, but this is also dependent upon the NPC being able to afford the additional staff necessary. It is clear from Table 1 that the majority of AHSN at the Beijing Paralympic Games came from the more economically developed western nations.

Table 1.  Distribution of Athletes with High Support Needs by Continental Association at theBeijingParalympic Games.

 

All AHSN

 

NPCs

M

W

T

Africa

6

15

4

19

Asia

15

125

39

164

Americas

14

104

34

138

Europe

34

250

81

331

Oceania

2

32

13

45

Total

71

526

171

697

 

Physical Disabilities

 

NPCs

M

W

T

Africa

3

7

4

11

Asia

10

69

22

91

Americas

12

63

24

87

Europe

30

163

56

219

Oceania

2

27

10

37

Total

57

329

116

445

 

Blind

 

NPCs

M

W

T

Africa

4

8

0

8

Asia

12

56

17

73

Americas

7

41

10

51

Europe

26

87

25

112

Oceania

2

5

3

8

Total

51

197

55

252

In total AHSN made up 17.6% of all athletes who participated in Beijing. However, only one quarter of the AHSN were female, again highlighting the impact of potential multiple discrimination i.e. being a woman and having a disability and having a disability that requires a high level of support. Unfortunately there is no other accurate data available to allow for a comparison of participation at previous Paralympic Games, but estimates by IPC cite figures of 24.3% for Sydney and 23.5% for Athens (IPC, 2008), which if anywhere near correct display a worrying downward trend in the participation of AHSN at Summer Paralympic Games. The estimates for Winter Games cite figures of 10.6% for Salt Lake and 7.6% for Torino (IPC, 2008), again displaying the same downward trend and possibly the even greater problems and issues involved for an AHSN to become involved in Winter sports.

Brittain, I., 2004, Perceptions of Disability and Their Impact Upon Involvement in Sport for People with Disabilities at All Levels in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, Vol. 28(4), p. 429-452.

IPC, 2008; Personal Communication. Excerpt from AHSN handbook emailed 2 December 2008 (unpaginated).

Lepore, M., Gayle, G.W. and Stevens, S., 2007, Adapted Aquatics Programming: A Professional Guide, London, Human Kinetics.

Schreiner, P. and Strohkendl, H., 2006, The Disappearance of Athletes with Severe Disabilities in Wheelchair Rugby, Paper presented at the Vista 2006 Conference entitled ‘Classification: Solutions for the Future’ held in Bonn, Germany, 6–7 May, 2006.

Wilhite, B., 2002, Sport for Athletes with Severe Disabilities – Identifying Key Issues

Affecting the Future of Disability and Sport in Brittain, 2010, The Paralympic Games Explained, Routledge, London

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