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What can we learn from the Olympics and Paralympics?

By Valerie Yule - posted Friday, 14 September 2012

Sports stars and coaches are busy learning from the London Olympics, in which flair and talent are promoted.

From the Paralympics we are all learning to respect the courage and the abilities of those afflicted.

We can also learn about the causes of their affliction.


Paralympic athletes are placed in one of six main disability groups: those with spinal injuries, cerebral palsy, amputees, the blind or visually impaired, intellectual disabilities and those whose disabilities fall outside of those categories, like those born with dwarfism or multiple sclerosis.

They could also be paced in three categories of causation of the disability. There are causes of disability that we do not yet fully understand and cannot cure, the diseases, genetic and prenatal causes, physical and mental. These we should sooner or later be able to prevent or cure, but at present we can only ameliorate the difficulties of the victims.

Then there are physiological causes of disability that we know enough today to prevent or cure - such as thalidomide, and the diseases once current in the West but still rampant in other parts of the world, like polio. These we should sooner or later be able to prevent or cure.

The third category is the results of human intention to harm. Among the contestants at the Paralympics are people with mutilation of limbs and torsos by warfare, by landmines, by suicide bombers, by the cruelty of soldiers against weak civilians. These we should sooner or later be able to prevent, but at present we have no successful attempts to stop the cruelties.

What is the proportion of these three causes among the athletes in the London Paralympics? I have been unable to find this information amongst all the piles of verbiage that is written. Each of the Paralympics' 20 sports are divided between the different classifications and given a number that denotes the severity of the disability -- 1 being the most severe, 10 the least. This is not the most important classification.

It would make a great stir if the causes of disabilities were public, and the competitors classified under them. It is a shocking classification.


Howe said "We must not forget that, first and foremost, the Paralympics is about celebrating difference. It's not about ability versus disability." Why not, first and foremost, resolutions to reduce the disabilities that we know how to reduce, particularly those inflicted deliberately?

In the first category in this new classifiction, yet to know the causes, prevention and cure of the disability, comes for example Victoria Arlen. It was revealed that the American swimming team's great hope of a gold medal in the pool -- 17-year-old Victoria Arlen -- had been denied a classification to compete. Arlen had dreamed of making the London 2012 able-bodied swimming team until a neurological disease put her in a coma for two years. When she woke up she was paralyzed in both legs. Yet Arlen continued to swim and this year broke two world records. But after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) reviewed her case, Arlen was told she could not compete. It had been decided that Arlen's disability wasn't severe enough. It appeared that she had lost out because of the complex system of disability classification, an essential tool for the Paralympics movement.

The second category of disabled people includes Vuningoma, who was born with his disability, but his parents didn't have the money to pay for the medical treatment that might have allowed him to use his leg. Playing for the team has given him a sense of purpose that many disabled people in Rwanda have yet to find.

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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