Para Troopers

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Marla Runyan is legally blind; a degenerative retinal disease means the two-time Paralympic runner has only peripheral vision. Everything in front of her "disappears into a hole," the American says, so she has to memorize the colors of her rivals' running vests to monitor her progress. Yet Runyan-in her first foray into the Olympics-qualified for the 1,500-m final in Sydney last month. Australian Paralympic 100-m runner Tim Matthews was born minus a left arm-an important tool for driving an athlete down the track-yet his personal best time of 10.87 sec. would have won silver in the women's Olympic 100 m, bettered only by the mighty Marion Jones.

Such feats of athleticism are the stuff of the Paralympic Games. Yet five years ago, the Sydney Paralympic Organising Committee says, only 3% of Australians knew what the event was. Since then the Paralympics have been gradually creating their own stars and nudging up public-awareness levels, but there are still skeptics. "There's this uncertainty about what it's all about," concedes spoc chief executive Lois Appleby. "There's an attitude: ĆThis is really just for the athletes and their families, it's not real sport.'"

When the Games of the XI Paralympiad open on Oct. 18, 4,000 athletes from 125 countries-and the 1 in 5 Australians with a physical disability-will be hoping for the start of a new era of respect and recognition. They want the Games to be seen less as a heart-warming nod in the direction of the disabled and more as a world-class sporting event testing the limits of individual athletic ability. "Being an elite athlete is about dedicating your life to sport," says triple Olympic gold medalist Ian Thorpe. "There's no difference between able-bodied and disabled athletes. We're both dedicated to the same pursuit of excellence." And though it's terrible to contemplate, any one of the aspiring able-bodied athletes watching the Olympics this year could be competing in the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

It takes only a split second. Heinz Frei was a talented 20-year-old cross-country runner in 1978 when he lost his footing on a Swiss mountain track and fell onto a rock ledge, snapping his spine. Two years later, when he started racing in a wheelchair of his own design, few saw what he did as a sport ("I think I was Ćpoor Heinz in the wheelchair,'" he recalls). But spectators are beginning to catch on, and Frei is now the world-record holder and hot favorite for the wheelchair marathon, to be held over the same course as the Olympic marathon on Oct. 29.

The Swiss, who's won 11 gold medals at four summer and five winter Games (in cross-country skiing), trains every day, covering up to 300 km a week. "It's no different from an able-bodied sport," he says. "We just use a racing chair-a piece of equipment like a bicycle or a running shoe." The racers travel at 30 to 40 km/h, using the same subtle tactics as endurance runners or cyclists. "All the power is coming from the shoulders and arms," says Australia's wheelchair track and road coach, Andrew Dawes, whose athletes include Louise Sauvage and Kurt Fearnley. "To propel the chair they make a fist and punch at the wheels like boxers to get them moving. It's not for the faint-hearted."

Nor is wheelchair basketball. "Most of the players [have been disabled by] accidents involving speed, alcohol and testosterone in that invincible era between the ages of 17 and 25," explains Australia's star player, Troy Sachs. "Put them on court in wheelchairs chasing after a basketball-it's a recipe for disaster." Articulate and charming off-court, Sachs turns into a demon when the whistle blows, spinning his chair, crashing it against other players', and tipping it on one wheel to gain height when shooting baskets.

Sachs uses a wheelchair only when he's on court, so he has to practice twice as hard as his teammates. Born without a shinbone, he had a small, useless right foot which his parents had amputated when he was a toddler so he could wear a prosthesis. He was on the soccer field by the age of four and later represented Australia in junior athletics, against able-bodied competitors. His parents told him: "Don't whinge about what you haven't got-go out and grab what you want." At 16, Sachs was the youngest Australian Paralympian in Barcelona; in Atlanta he steered the basketball team to gold, single-handedly scoring 42 points-an Olympic and Paralympic record. The game is similar to the running version, but players have to ground the ball after two pushes and each team member is graded by mobility from 1 to 4.5 (Sachs, at 4.5 points, is the least disabled). The five players on each side must collectively have no more than 14 points.

The 18 Paralympic sports-including tennis, judo, cycling and equestrian-each have a classification system to accommodate the full range of disabilities. There are 26 100-m sprints (15 for men, 11 for women), depending on whether the athletes are amputees, visually impaired, intellectually disabled or affected by cerebral palsy. A leg amputee and arm amputee may swim against each other if they're classed as equally handicapped. In a wheelchair race, a paraplegic may be up against a double leg amputee: though the paraplegic has better balance, the amputee has the weight advantage ("It's all about power-to-weight ratio," says coach Dawes).

In each event, every country has a quota of competitors and selection standards are rigorous. To maintain a high level of competition, there must be six qualifiers from at least four countries or the event is dropped. That rule is vital, says Australian Paralympic Committee chef de mission Paul Bird, "if we're going to show we're fair dinkum." Bird still receives letters from the government wishing him all the best for the "Para-Olympics" and "that grates on everyone because it still hasn't got through that it's Paralympics, meaning parallel."

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The Games originated in 1948 in Stoke Mandeville, England, where neurologist Ludwig Guttmann organized a sports meet for World War II veterans in wheelchairs. Competitors from Holland joined the Games four years later, then Rome staged the first Paralympics in 1960. There were 400 athletes from 23 countries, but wheelchair was the only disability category. The Games now include six disability groups and the number of athletes has grown tenfold in the past four decades, but the Paralympics are still in their infancy, and few athletes can afford to pursue their sport full-time. In some ways this is a plus: it's allowed the Paralympics to escape the taint of corruption and commercialism, and kept them closer to the Olympic ideals.

Not that they are squeaky clean. There have been drug cheats and athletes who have underplayed their abilities to gain an edge in the classification process. "They're no angels," says spoc chief Appleby. The Paralympics has the same list of banned substances as the Olympics, and random, out-of-competition tests will begin on Oct. 11, when the athletes' village opens. Appleby says it's a myth that all the Paralympic athletes need medication for their health: "Very few of them take drugs. Those who might be [prescribed] a banned substance declare it and it's checked out."

Perhaps the biggest fairness issue is the technology gap. This year, for example, a leg amputee in the 100-m sprint could break the 11 sec. barrier with a carbon-fiber foot component, based on a curved spring that gives the runner a push-off. New technology, combined with better training, has sent records tumbling, and athletes from poorer countries just can't compete. Some of them wheel into the village in cumbersome day chairs, which they roll to the starting line alongside lightweight, high-tensile sporting machines. "In the future it's felt there will be almost two types of Games-for the Haves and the Have-Nots," says prosthetist Mark Hills, who will be working at the Paralympics repair center. The C-Leg, a $27,000 electronic knee joint that mimics a natural gait, won't be used at these Games because it's deemed to give an unfair advantage. As yet, though, there are no design restrictions on other prostheses or on wheelchairs-except, of course, that they cannot be motorized.

Amy Winters, who won 200-m gold at the 1996 Paralympics, began running with a prosthetic arm 18 months ago, mostly to help her spring off the blocks. "It looks almost like a baton, so I get a lot of jokes when I'm running a relay," she says. The 22-year-old-who was born with one arm that stops just below the elbow-holds the world records for the 100 m and 200 m (12.49 and 25.97 sec.) in her amputee class, and is considered a guaranteed gold medalist in Sydney. But Winters remains cautious-the media pay little attention to Paralympic athletes, she says, so she's not necessarily aware of her competition. "It's so possible for new athletes to come along who haven't been involved before-people who might have had accidents."

Winters has been racing since she was nine, and always against able-bodied athletes. Over the past 20 years more Paralympians have been training in able-bodied squads, and performance standards have risen accordingly. These days, too, athletes increasingly align themselves with a sport rather than a disability. After all, many don't feel they have a disability. Australian swimmer Priya Cooper has cerebral palsy, but when her school teacher told her about the Paralympics, she remembers thinking: "I don't think I'll be disabled enough." She swam at both Barcelona and Atlanta, collecting 12 medals-eight of them gold-along the way.

The 26-year-old does her warm-up stretches by the pool at Sydney's Manly Swim Centre, grabs a post to haul herself to her feet, then walks jerkily to the water. Cooper ploughs through the pool using only her upper body, while her legs trail behind her. "She can put up with the pain because she's used to it," says her coach, Narelle Simpson. "Priya never complains. Never." Cooper will compete in at least six Paralympic events this year, including freestyle, backstroke and individual medley; no swimmer on the Olympic team carried that kind of load. "The public doesn't understand how much training these athletes put in," Simpson says. But Cooper takes it all in good humor: "You still get people saying, ĆIsn't it wonderful you're out'-like, in public. And you have to say, ĆNo, it's not wonderful, really, getting up at four in the morning.'"

Libby Kosmala, who's about to compete in her eighth Paralympics, has seen a dramatic shift in public perception. "When I first went, it was Ća few sports for the disabled'-that was the government attitude," she says. "It was seen as welfare, giving people something to do." The South Australian, who has spina bifida, originally competed in archery and the pentathlon, but shooting has been her only sport since 1980. Shooting from a wheelchair may not sound any more difficult than doing it standing up, but it's a question of balance. "It's like sitting in a bowl of jelly," she says. "From the middle of my stomach I have no feeling, no muscle control, no movement. I have to be strapped into the chair or I'd fall out."

Kosmala is 58, but this year has been one of the most successful in her sporting career, and in Sydney she hopes to add at least one Paralympic gold medal to the nine she already has. In preparation, Kosmala practices shooting for 12 hours a week, on top of swimming and gym sessions and a psychological program, which includes listening to tapes and visualizing the perfect shot while she irons clothes or does the dishes.

The athletes' training regimes may be as strict as those of the Olympians, but their triumphs over adversity offer even more inspiration, says Australian chef de mission Bird. "It's bringing people with disabilities out of the closet and saying to the public, ĆDon't feel sorry-celebrate their successes and use them to motivate yourself.'"

Greg Smith is a case in point. He was a physical training instructor for the Australian Army when, in 1986, he fell asleep at the wheel of a car, hit a tree and broke his neck. "It was pretty horrific, especially being 19," Smith says. "Your life's only just beginning. You're discovering the sort of person you might be, the things you want to do in the future." Smith was in hospital for six months, and spent half of that time on his back, staring at the ceiling. "There were lots and lots of low points," he says. It was eight years before he fully accepted his disability. Wheelchair racing, which he took up two years after the accident, helped. Smith is ranked in the top three in the world in his quadriplegic classification and currently holds the world records for the 800 m and 1,500 m. He's often asked to speak to men who have recently been paralyzed, but he says that if they're not sporty to start with, he's wasting his time. "It's important mentally," he says, "to get off your bum and just live again."

Despite the training and the talents of the participants, the Paralympics have never been, and never will be, just about sport. "Whether they want to admit it or not, every Paralympian has had a handful of people who've put them down because of their disability," says Sachs. "We've always got something to prove, no matter how many medals we win. There's always problems, the little stares, people's perceptions."

The athletes say the hard part is getting bums on seats, but they are confident that once people watch the sports they'll be won over. Swimmer Cooper says: "People who come to the Paralympics will realize that it's not a game, it's a commitment-and a real battle to see who's going to have the most guts on the day." The athletes will parade their sporting prowess next week, but all of them will have proved their guts long before they file into the stadium.

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