Why are there no athletes with intellectual disabilities in Pyeongchang?

The winter Paralympics continues to amaze with extraordinary feats. It is now time for people with Intellectual disabilities to take part.

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Tom Weir

The winter Paralympics continues to amaze with extraordinary feats. It is now time for people with Intellectual disabilities to take part.

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The Winter Paralympics will, for all those watching around the world, continue to push the expectations of what we deem humanly possible. Such is the level of performance on show, the caveat of “for the disabled” or “for people with impairments” isn’t required in the previous sentence. We are fortunately past the time when the simple act of people with varying impairments playing sport was sufficient to garner praise, or even worse, have platitudes thrown around such as “how fantastically brave.” Elite disability sport is now admired against a generalised yardstick of excellence, and is not found wanting. Attitudes and rights for people with disabilities have changed hugely over the last 30 years; feats of athleticism, I would argue, have been a vital part of the reason why.

That sport has the power to change minds and perception of impairment is now openly acknowledged by disability sport organisations. The British Paralympic Association today use the nomenclature of being “a movement,” and openly discuss their intention to use large scale events as a battering ram to advance public perception of people with impairment, through the increasing visibility and excellence of world class sport. This drive for increasingly higher levels has been criticised in some quarters for excluding many of the more severely impaired athletes, alienating the wider disability community, and not providing enough grassroots opportunities. (These problems are often bundled together in the idea of the ‘Paralympic Paradox.’) These not inconsiderable criticisms aside, the fact remains that the Paralympic Games now are a highly visible force changing perceptions of disability. This has occurred however only for those allowed within the tent; namely those with a definable and classifiable physical impairment. Amongst the athletes competing at Pyeongchang there is still no place for those with an Intellectual Disability (ID). It requires a quick delve into history to explain why.

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London 2012 Paralympic Games ©Thomas Davies

From 1948-1976 the Paralympic Games (the the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’) were purely for people with spinal cord injury; owing largely to the domineering figure of their founder Sir Ludwig Guttmann. ID was first part of the Winter Paralympics in 1992; with demonstration events in cross country and alpine skiing. The Barcelona summer games did not include ID athletes, instead a special event for ID athletes was held in Madrid, and at a price, also afforded the Paralympic name tag. Biathlon was added as a further demonstration event in 1994; before Atlanta 1996 and Nagano 1998 saw full medal involvement in a limited number of events. However in 2000, following a cheating scandal where it was revealed the Spanish basketball team had knowingly cheated the classification system in order to win gold, ID athletes were expelled wholesale as an impairment category. Dr Bob Price, head of the British Paralympic Association at the time, described it as an incredibly reluctant move, but unavoidable as the classification system was simply not robust enough. Re-admission was not to come until London 2012, following extensive work to improve the classification system, a crucial part of which is the requirement to quantify that there is a sport specific impact of the impairment, not just the presence of an impairment generally. Athletes with ID have then returned to the Summer Games; but in only 3 of the 21 sports (athletics, swimming and table tennis) in small numbers, and have yet to re-feature in the Winter Games, although it is hoped Cross Country Skiing may be included in 2022.

This exclusion means that ID athletes are missing out on the benefits of the Paralympic Games; for themselves as athletes by not having the highest level to compete at; and for the public perception of Intellectual Disability more generally. That it would be dangerous for ID athletes to compete, or that they would not be capable of the levels of excellence required, can be debunked by the Special Olympics Winter Games which shows that athletes were capable of competing safely, successfully and sufficiently swiftly. (The 2013 Special Olympic World Games incidentally was held in Pyeongchang.) Whilst the Special Olympics have a high profile, especially in America, they are fundamental different in ethos. Their focus on wider inclusion, to some observers, comes at the expense of the ability to significantly change perceptions on disability. And despite both being part of the ‘Olympic Family,’ Special Olympics and Paralympics have shown a reluctance to work together, understandable particularly on the part of Special Olympics, who would not wish to potentially lose their top athletes to other competition. So will ID athletes ever be a full part of the Paralympic games?

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2015 Special Olympics Opening Ceremony ©Eric Garcetti

Enter INAS-FID (The International Sports Federation for Persons with Intellectual Disability) the most important sport organisation most people have never heard of, who since 1986 have been organising elite competition for athletes with Intellectual Disability. INAS has been integral at developing the eligibility and classification system for ID athletes, and pushed for inclusion in the Paralympics. It was INAS that organised the Madrid 1992 games that were to be so important for the initial inclusion of ID athletes. Following the exclusion of 2000 it was the work of INAS (with considerable support from the IPC) that established sufficiently robust classification systems to allow re-inclusion in 2012. Whilst only athletics, swimming and table tennis are currently in the summer Paralympic Games, the 2019 INAS World Games in Brisbane will showcase a greater number of sports, some of which are prime candidates for inclusion in Tokyo 2020, Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028. As for the winter sports, that the 11th INAS World Alpine and Nordic Skiing Championship have been held in February 2018 in Zakopane, Poland strongly indicates cross country skiing is ready for inclusion.

An invitation to the top table of disability sport really matters; for every athlete with a medal round their neck it is another blow to negative perceptions of people with Intellectual Disabilities. Come the Games of Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 it can be expected that more athletes with ID will be on the Paralympic podium; and the eyes of the world will fall, however briefly, on just how physically able athletes with Intellectual Disability can be.

Further reading:

For more on the issues around classification of ID athletes: Burns, Jan. “The Impact of Intellectual Disabilities on Elite Sports Performance.” International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology 8, no. 1 (2015).
Brittain, Ian. The Paralympic Games Explained: Second Edition. Oxon: Routledge, 2016.

Tom Weir

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