Paralympics: A Bonus Beyond Olympic Games

What cannot be overlooked in a maze of economic development, sponsorship, job creation, urban renewal, and transportation concerns is the Paralympics, which follow after each Olympics.
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Peeking inside Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics provides plenty of material for news pages as the city and world await final votes to choose a host by the International Olympic Committee on Oct. 2.

What cannot be overlooked in a maze of economic development, sponsorship, job creation, urban renewal, and transportation concerns is the Paralympic Games, which follow at the same venues right after each summer and winter Olympics.

At a recent Specialized Reporting Institute funded by the McCormick Foundation and hosted by the DePaul University College of Communications, the first mention of "athleticism" came from Linda Mastandrea, who won gold and silver medals in Atlanta in 1996 and set a record in the 200-meter race.

She competed for the first time on the 1992 U.S. Paralympic team at the Barcelona Games after first being introduced to wheelchair basketball when she attended the University of Illinois, a leader in disability sports.

Mastandrea is Director of Paralympic Sport & Accessibility for Chicago 2016.

What surprises people who have never seen Paralympic sport before is how strong and capable athletes are, how it doesn't matter whether you are missing a limb, your eyesight, or your ability to walk, you can be an amazing athlete.

Sport is sport, whether it is played from a wheelchair, with a prosthetic or some other assistive device. Paralympic athletes have the same drive, the same will to succeed and to win, that athletes without disabilities have," she said.

The Chief of Paralympics for the United States Olympic Committee is Charlie Huebner, who describes the Paralympics movement as being in its infancy. But he leaves no doubt about its strength: "One of our major objectives is to win medals."

The United States is one of just four countries (along with South Africa, Norway, The Netherlands) that run their Olympics and Paralympics together. The Paralympics and Olympics have been held at the same site since 1988 although the Paralympics evolved out of a competition among injured World War II veterans in England forty years earlier.

According to the Paralympic website, the Paralympic Games, from 2008 on, will take place shortly after the Olympic Games, using the same sporting venues and facilities. One organizing committee is responsible for hosting both the Olympic and the Paralympic Games. Athletes from both games live in the same billage and enjoy the same catering services, medical care and facilities. Ticketing, technology and transport systems for the Olympic Games are seamlessly extended to the Paralympics.

Huebner has been in the lead U.S. Paralympics position since 2006 and spent years before that as both an executive and volunteer in the development of disability sports. He was at the White House last week when President Barack Obama met with Chicago 2016 and USOC representatives.

Obama's recognition of Olympic and Paralympic sport and his emphasis on the importance of fitness and health are important to the growth of those programs, Huebner said, and he estimated that there are 21 million Americans with physical disabilities.

Emerging Paralympic athletes are being identified. Each sport provides a unique training environment. In May, 100 wheelchairs were donated to community-based Paralympic sports programs in Chicago.

And Chicago also hosted one of seven training camps for veterans and disabled active duty soldiers to introduce them to on-going programs in their communities.

Huebner explained: "The Paralympic Military program is focused on ensuring that physically disabled service members and veterans have access to training, equipment and Paralympic mentors at the community level as part of their rehabilitation."

Currently, the USOC with the Department of Defense, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and member organizations are delivering programs to more than 5,700 injured service members and veterans.

"We estimate that 15% of our future 2012 and beyond teams will be veterans," Huebner said.

Mastandrea did not use a wheelchair until she was in college although she was born with cerebral palsy. Before she got to Champaign-Urbana, her family or friends would carry her when she got tired. On campus, she walked, sprained her ankle, went to the Rehabilitation Education Center and started using a wheelchair when she started playing sports. She calls that competing "by accident."

Paralympic participation is about changing the course of your life, she said, and while she is no longer sprinting competitively, "I am working with Chicago 2016 for the opportunity to share that passion, that magic of Paralympic sport, with the world in my own backyard."

In Beijing in 2008, the Great Wall of China was accessible to people with disabilities for the first time. That was a benefit of hosting the Olympics, according to Karen Tamley, the Commissioner of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) in Chicago.

Tamley is the city's "point person" for Paralympic matters for the Chicago 2016 bid which integrates the Olympic and the Paralympic Games. The same facilities are used. Mayor Richard M. Daley always talks about both the Olympics and Paralympics, a measure of the importance of the Paralympics, she said.

It is Tamley's job to anticipate the needs of both athletes and spectators and her goal is to make the 2016 games the most accessible ever.

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