I had the privilege of covering the Summer Paralympics in 1996 in Atlanta and was admittedly astonished to discover the caliber of athletes participating in those games. I interviewed a runner who was an amputee, running on two artificial feet and whose running time was only seconds longer than the gold medalist the same year in the Olympics. I met a swimmer who was visually impaired who held the same claim, with her fastest times being just shy of those achieved by the fastest Olympic swimmer.
That year there were television crews from Brazil filming every event, and a number of other countries had sent print and broadcast journalists. Here in the United States, however, coverage was sparse -- limited primarily to the articles I wrote and two hours of highlights on one television network.
Part of the problem is undoubtedly the relative newness of the events -- and of a somewhat confused identity in the public perception.
The first Paralympics Games were held in 1960 in South Korea; and since 1975 the agreement between the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the IPC (International Paralympics Committee) has been that the Paralympics are held in the very same venues as the Olympic Games, approximately two weeks later.
As for the confused identity, the Paralympics are sometimes mistaken for the Special Olympics, a vastly different organization. Special Olympics is a collection of games and events open to participation by anyone ages 8 to 80 who has mental retardation.
The focus is feeling good and raising self-esteem, and everybody wins.
The Paralympics, however, are fiercely competitive and feature elite athletes who leave jobs, school, families and other responsibilities to train for months on end, exactly as do their nondisabled Olympic peers.
Paralympics athletes have such disabilities as spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, visual impairments and intellectual disabilities or represent a category called "les autres" (others), and can compete in a variety of 26 qualifying Paralympic sports, ranging from wheelchair tennis to tandem cycling.
In the Paralympic Winter Games, 600 athletes from 41 countries are competing in four sports: alpine skiing, ice sledge hockey, Nordic skiing and wheelchair curling. Athletes are divided by classifications, determined by disability type and the level of functionality an individual has. Somewhat analogous to weight classifications in wrestling or boxing, Paralympians are classified by such standards as how much or many limbs have movement and to what degree or how much vision, if any, an athlete has and to what degree in terms of central or peripheral visual acuity.
Still, after 46 years, the Paralympic Games have not been a central focus for international broadcasting. This year, for example, while television networks in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia will be airing major portions of the events and NBC's Today show and ESPN will probably be airing highlights and snippets, no U.S. network opted to broadcast the games all week.
But the good news is that finally, without traveling to Italy, viewers around the world can watch the Paralympics. A first-time collaboration between the International Paralympic Committee and Narrowstep Television Inc. (with such sponsors as Visa and Samsung) is bringing the first 24-hour broadcast of the Paralympics to viewers worldwide, via the Internet.
At www.ParalympicSport.tv, viewers can catch the opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, daily highlights and archived on-demand footage of specific competitions.
Can you name an Alpine ski racer who regularly flies down slopes at 60 miles an hour, who has organized a New England-based ski team and who has participated in world class games as both ski racer and coach? This could almost describe Bode Miller, but I'm talking about Christopher Devlin-Young, whose lower body is paralyzed and who has taken medals first as a stand-up disabled skier and later, after sports injuries and declining functionality, as a racer sitting down.
Why are the names Josh Sundquist, Laurie Stephens and Ralph Green not as well-known, say, as Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen or Bode Miller? As Rodney Dangerfield might have asked: Why do they get no respect?
Maybe I'm playing a bit of the Pollyanna here, but I'm still believing that the reason is more a matter of limited awareness and exposure than any real disdain. The stereotyped notions of blind and amputee and wheelchair simply don't jive in a lot of minds with flying down ski slopes and kicking butt -- or hockey puck -- on the ice.
But those notions are wrong and need serious adjustment.
Check out www.ParalympicSport.tv and see for yourself that Paralympians are first and foremost athletes and second, people with disabilities. Watch it long enough, get a handle on the toughness of these athletes and the triumph of their spirit and accomplishments, and then tell your friends. Then maybe when the 2008 Beijing games roll around, the Paralympics will get the airtime they deserve -- and Olympics-viewing junkies will get an extra couple of weeks watching elite athletes on national TV.