The Paralympics: athletes with a challenge

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Frank Bruno.

By Richard Haskell

How many of you sat with your eyes glued to the television for two weeks watching the events of the 2014 Winter Olympics unfold? If not, did any of you have more than a passing interest in the event and watched at least some of it? No matter how you may have felt, it was a roller-coaster ride for many Canadians, 14 days of joys and a few disappointments. And it wasn’t just about the golds, silvers and bronzes, even though they were a big part of it. How could we ever forget the great acts of kindness, such as speed skater Gilmore Junio giving up his place for Denny Morrison, who went on to win silver. Or cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth, who came to the aid of Russian skier Anton Gafarov.

With all its hype and glamour, it may be easy to forget that there’s another Olympics being held in Sochi, maybe less well known, but in no way any less important – the 2014 Paralympics, opening in Sochi tomorrow. The Paralympic Games had their origins in post-war Britain, when a doctor by the name of Ludwig Guttman organized competitions for a group of 400 British veterans with spinal cord injuries. During the past sixty-five years, it’s grown into an international multi-sport event involving athletes with a wide range of physical and intellectual disabilities.

History and Background

Shortly after the initial games were held in Britain, a similar event was organized in – of all places – Toronto – where different disability groups were added. The name was originally an amalgamation of the words “paraplegic” and “Olympic.” Nevertheless, since that initial connotation, the term now stems from the Greek παρά, parámeaning “beside” or “alongside,” an indication that the games take place immediately following the Olympics – and since 1988, have used the same facilities. The first official Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960 and featured 400 athletes from 23 countries – a considerable contrast to the 2004 event in Athens, which featured more than 3,800 athletes from 136 countries. The games are governed by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), a non-profit global governing body founded in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1989 and whose mandate is “to enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.”

There are currently six classifications of disability which apply to both the summer and winter Paralympics. These are:

Amputee: Athletes with a partial or total loss of at least one limb.

Cerebral Palsy: Athletes with non-progressive brain damage, i.e. cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, stroke or similar disabilities affecting muscle control, balance or coordination.

Intellectual Disability: Athletes with a significant impairment in intellectual ability and limitations in adaptive behavior.

Wheelchair: Athletes with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities which require the use of a wheelchair in order to compete.

Visually Impaired: Athletes with varying degrees of visual impairment ranging from partial vision, to total blindness.

Other Categories: Athletes with a physical disability that does not fall under any of the five divisions such as dwarfism, MS, or congenital deformities such as those caused by thalidomide.

The Canadian Connection

Canada has taken part in every summer and winter Paralympic Games since 1968. That year, the games were held in Tel Aviv, Israel, where 22 wheelchair athletes participated among 750 from 29 countries. Among those who were instrumental in securing funding for Canada’s participation was Dr. Robert F. Jackson, a Toronto orthopedic surgeon who later became the first President of the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball Association, and was one of the founders of the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

The first Paryalympic Summer Games to be held in Canada took place in Toronto in 1976. Shortly after, the Canadian Government granted funding for the development of sporting opportunities to those with disabilities, and Canada has continued to be a leader in the Paralympic movement.

Many Canadian brain injury survivors have particularly distinguished themselves at the Paralympic Games. Among them is equestrian Judy Schloss, who suffered an ABI as a result of an automobile accident that left her in a three-month coma. She returned to riding after rehabilitation, and took part in the 2012 Games in London as a member of Canada’s Paralympic equestrian team.

Frank Bruno

Someone else who particularly shone in the Paralympics is ABI survivor and BIST member Frank Bruno. In 1986, Frank suffered a severe accident at work, falling 20 feet and fracturing both sides of his skull. He was in a coma for three weeks, and initially, his doctors gave him little chance of recovery. Yet Frank had been an accomplished athlete up to the time of the accident, and despite initial paralysis, he underwent several weeks of therapy and was soon able to walk on his own, much to the amazement of his doctors and therapists.

In 1987, a classmate who worked at the office of Sport for the Disabled Ontario (now Parasport Ontario) asked him if he was interested in taking part in sports again. Because walking itself was proving such a challenge, he declined, but a year later decided to try it. Frank started competing in 1988, and placed second in both the 100m and 200m Provincial Championships. The following year in Ottawa, he came in first, not only in the two races, but also in the long jump and the shot put – impressive results from someone who was not expected to recover at all.

In 1991, the Paralympic Organizing Committee invited him to participate in the “test meet” in Barcelona, Spain. There, he ran in the 200m and the 400m events, winning gold in both and beating the world record in the 400m. He enjoyed great success again the following year during the Summer Paralympic Games, where he won golds in the 100m, 200m, and 400m sprints and set two new world- and Paralympic records, and a Canadian record. The 200m record was unbroken for eight years, and the 400m, for five years.

He took part in only one event in the 1996 Paralympics-  the shot put –  and despite a  tonic -chronic seizure that greatly hampered his training, he placed a commendable fourth.

In August, 2004, Frank was asked to help build the soccer program for the Canadian Cerebral Palsy Sports Association with the aim of qualifying for the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing, China. Further proof of his reputation came in 2010, when he was awarded the King Clancy Award, and again in 2011, when he was inducted into the Durham College Sports Hall of Fame.

To what did he attribute his tremendous success? Not only years of training, but also his  coach Faye Blackwood, his therapist Joy Gilbert, and his entire  family. As he explained, the athletes compete only for a two-week period, but the effort that goes into those fourteen days is the result of training for years leading up to the games. Frank went on to say that competing can be cruel:

“ …You only get one chance at your event…..if you do well you move on….if you struggle (and fail) you are eliminated……even if you have been doing great in all your training………it only takes a miscue of any kind…”

Nevertheless, he’s pleased that the Paralympics are receiving so much more recognition than they were when he was competing. Back in the early 1990s, the games had very little coverage. At that time, very few, if any, would show up for press conferences, and there was only one person conducting interviews for all sporting events. Now there’s coverage by television, radio, print and social media including live coverage on CBC.

The Paralympics – like their regular counterpart – can be exhilarating, demanding, uplifting, devastating and full of joy – but also full of disappointments. Whatever emotion they produce on the part of either participant or spectator, the games provide a marvelous opportunity for those who happen to excel at athletics, but also happen to be physically or mentally challenged in some way.

People like Judy Schloss and Frank Bruno set goals for themselves and demonstrated what they could accomplish despite having suffered a brain injury. Each person is unique and each has something to offer – long may the Paralympic Games exist to offer fun and competition to those who are already face challenges every day.

Richard Haskell is a volunteer with the Brain Injury Society of Toronto’s Communications Committee.

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