Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ever Present Paralympic Sport Politics

With the 2012 Paralympic games just 71 days away, I've been doing a lot of reading on the different sports that will be present this go around. Just for interest sake I looked at the swimming events available for totally blind women and was slightly irritated to see that six races were being offered. I wasn't irritated at the London Games, in fact quite the opposite. I was irritated with Beijing because they chose to get rid of  all but two races for totally blind women, which meant just 8 months out I had to start training for events that weren't my original races. I even had to change strokes. I'm glad to see though, that the Games seem to have expanded again.
After that I looked up the events offered to totally blind women on the track and was again irritated. It would appear that totally blind women can only run sprint distances. There isn't even a marathon offered to this specific disability. There are three marathon classifications for men, while there is only one for women and that is for female wheelchair users. You'd think that in 2012 we'd be a little more advanced than that.
Then, of course, I moved on to the triathlon, as it is still my goal one day to run one, and was confronted with a low vision American athlete suing the governing bodies of triathlon for the rule they implemented 2 years ago. The rule stated that all visually impaired athletes had to wear blacked out goggles during the run portion of the race. It was said to even the playing field because there were totally blind athletes and low vision athletes racing against one another. Usually, these athletes are broken up into 3 categories based on their vision loss, but since there apparently aren't enough blind/visually impaired athletes to break us up into 3 categories, they have thrown everyone together.
There are a lot of issues with forcing a low vision athlete to wear blacked out goggles, and I am certainly not debating that, but what concerns me is the articles being published about this lawsuit. The reasons being given, or at least the ones that the media is focusing on, make it sound like totally blind athletes are dangerous to themselves and others on the race course. The athlete suing gave examples of him trying to train in goggles and falling into a ditch and running head first into a pole. It makes me wonder what his guide was doing to allow him to do this. Not to mention, were they using a ten foot tether? I don't know the specifics, so I will attempt to keep my comments to myself, but using illustrations such as those makes it sound like all totally blind people run themselves into poles and ditches. He also used the example of him running into a volunteer at a water station during a race and again, this could be problematic for totally blind athletes who have fought so hard to have the right to run races with sighted athletes. We don't all run into volunteers.
I don't think this is  what this particular athlete is trying to convey, but that is the message coming out in the media. I'm not saying don't stand up for your rights, but the distinctions between a totally blind athlete and a partially sighted athlete really need to be made in order to protect the rights of the totally blind athlete.
So, here are some of the reasons why blindfolding a partially sighted athlete is a problem. (And I am sure I'll leave something out because I am totally blind, not partially sighted, and therefore don't know what all of the issues a low vision athlete faces).
First of all, it's the principle of the matter. Why are you disabling someone further and if you are going to force the athlete to wear blacked out goggles on one leg of the race, why aren't they forced to wear them during the whole race? I am not by any means suggesting that this should be done! It just doesn't make sense. People who know nothing about blind/visually impaired sport are making these decisions. Blind athletes have offered to sit on these committees in order to assist with decision making, but they have been denied. Who would know better about blind/visually impaired sport than blind/visually impaired athletes?
Another problem is taking someone who is used to seeing a certain way and expecting them to not see at all. That is the unsafe part. This athlete ran into a volunteer, pole and ditch because he is not used to being blind. People don't realise how much just a little bit of sight can make a huge difference and that is the reasoning behind blindfolding these athletes, but it is also a good reason not to. It is dangerous for them because they don't know how to be totally blind, and, I think, that is the point this athlete and his lawyer are trying to make, but the media has missed that essential point. Let's just hope the general public doesn't get a hold of this and misunderstands it because if they do, it could mean a lot of trouble for totally blind athletes. Races will start refusing entry to totally blind athletes and blind triathletes will be back where they were only five years ago; having nowhere to race because people think they are dangerous.