Undiscovered Glory

We’ve just witnessed two weeks worth of athletics at its best, courtesy of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. From an American standpoint, there was much to celebrate (golds in men’s and women’s beach volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, Michael Phelps’ eight golds from the pool along with his various world records, gold in the decathlon, a 1-2 finish in women’s balance beam). As citizens of the world, we could savor Uzbekistan’s first Olympic medal of any color, the joy and victories of Jamaican runners, and, of course, the Chinese successes. The Opening Ceremonies offered pageantry and beauty we will not soon forget, despite the not-so-pretty truths that surrounded it.

We’re really fortunate. In this age of technology, we are no more than a click of a mouse or the pointing of a remote away from seeing the best athletes in the world put four years (or more) of lonely, grueling, dedicated preparation on the line. For some, their chance at glory lasted only a few seconds. The panorama of human emotion that this evokes, from the thrill of achieving the thing you’ve sacrificed so relentlessly for, to the bitter disappointment of having that dream elude you by a fingertip or a toe clipping a hurdle … well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

But if there is a time when our eyes should be on China, it’s now. After the grand spectacle of the Olympics, there is something else that happens in sports. It’s just as riveting, and the prowess of the participants is just as worthy of our respect. It’s the Paralympic Games, the Olympic-level competition for athletes with physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, our society is very much fueled by money. Many athletes wouldn’t be able to pursue their quests without the support of government-sponsored training programs or corporate backers. So if someone is highly skilled, it doesn’t hurt to be photogenic, well-spoken, and, most of all, in the right place at the right time so you can make the personal and professional connections that will further your road toward success.

Disabled athletes, for the most part, don’t have sponsors. For them, if they want to be the best in the nation, let alone the world, it requires endless creativity to find a way to make a living and pursue their goal simultaneously. Energy spent trying to cover expenses is energy they can’t put toward training. Say what you want about whether it’s just a mental thing drumming up financial backing. It’s energy.

Based on discussions I’ve had with disabled and non-disabled friends in Asia, there’s an uncomfortable tightrope that is walked when it comes to how the disabled are perceived.

For parents, there is still a great stigma to having a disabled child. So, the conflict for them of the idea that disabled people are helpless and useless and need to be taken care of, and their resentment at having a “non-productive” person in their household can make for immense levels of tension.

In the U.S. and Europe, we pride ourselves on the idea that, even if we still harbor some of those same suspicions, we’ve at least attempted to legislate our way beyond them. Discrimination and marginalization are apsects of life for disabled people everywhere, both here and abroad. We just tend to be a little less obvious about it. We don’t generally disown our disabled kids and send them out into the streets to beg, or relegate them to state institutions. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying.

But, as I said earlier, there’s no big money in disabled athletes, so the Paralympics are just a footnote following “the real Games”, if they get mentioned at all.

This is too bad. People are too often mired by their discomfort when faced with close interaction with a disabled person. Fear of difference, fear of what we would do if we were handed the same fate, fear of having to face the fact that human beings are, at heart, fragile and impermanent and, yes, mortal. There are many other emotions that come up, but those are a few biggies.

Yet, just as the Olympics brought us stories of hardships overcome and reassured us of the endurance of the human spirit, the Paralympics offers a similar opportunity, with the added benefit of showing that disabled people share the same dreams, shortcomings, strengths and weaknesses as the rest of us. They may use wheelchairs or crutches, have artificial limbs, not hear or see, but they’re human beings, deserving of the same respect and responsibilities as everyone else.

I was a runner in high school and college. I never ran for my school, but that didn’t stop me from doing it independently. The first statewide meet I attended was quite an experience. For three days, Hofstra University on Long Island was taken over by kids of all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of physical limitations, all pursuing sports with the same enthusiasm, energy and passion as any able-bodied kid.

The track events were held Saturday. The first race was the 1500 meters, which I ran and won in my division for the totally blind (classified, in sports terms, as B1). Since it was the first event of the games, the stands were packed. It didn’t matter that no one knew who I was or who any of the other athletes, who were in wheelchairs or on crutches, were. They cheered for all of us, and they had the same roar of support for the one who finished last as they had for the one who finished first. Whether they were parents or volunteers, they knew what we all knew: sports is a unifying experience, and everyone loves watching someone try to push him- or herself to new heights of stamina, skill, or sheer willpower.

I ran the 60 meters and the 100 meters later that afternoon. The last race of the day was the 800 meters. By the time it started, in early evening, the stands were empty. The only people still left at the track were those competing, a few parents, and the officials doing the record-keeping.

I’m not expecting NBC to provide the extensive coverage on-screen and on-line that it afforded the Olympics. The disabled, after all, are a small minority. It costs a lot of money to suspend your usual programming for two weeks. To do it for another one or two beyond that would be crazy.

But, if you’ve never heard of the Paralympics, or even if you have but think you have serious misgivings about how you’d respond to anyone with a disability because of your own fears or misperceptions, I encourage you to use that powerful technological tool, the Internet, and see what you can find coming out of Beijing now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished and the mantle of host has been passed to London.

We may not run as fast or jump as high or throw as far (in fact, some of us can’t run, jump, or throw at all!). We might need a guide running beside us to finish a race, or lower nets so we can play volleyball while sitting down.

But we can provide the same glimpses into sportsmanship, national pride, and spirit that you have come to expect from the Olympic Games.

Shaquille O’Neal has said, “Real knows real. You don’t teach that extra something someone has inside their chest. Leaders come in a variety of ways, but you always can see it when it’s really there. At the end of the day, it’s not just all about you. It’s about your ability to pull the max out of someone else, to inspire them to be all they can be because they are around you. Any true champion at some point has done it.” (ESPN the Magazine, July 14, 2008, Volume 11, No. 14, PP.14-15)

So search, discover, celebrate … prepare to be inspired.

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