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6 November 2014

Chuck Aoki: Being a Paralympian isn’t just a hobby

I'm furious. And as someone who's normally a pretty laid back guy, this is unusual.


But when I read sentences like these, my day is ruined: “The wheelchair racers are inspiring for sure but it’s not elite sport in the same sense of running.” and “ESPN is in the business of covering elite sporting events. They know this and thus covered the wheelchair racers appropriately for the most part.”


I have never felt so offended by something not directed at me. I really don't even know where to begin.


I'll start with the source. These quotes are from a review of ESPN2's coverage of the 2013 New York City Marathon on LetsRun.com.


I don't have a problem with LetsRun.com itself, or the author of this article. However, I do have a problem with is the erroneous belief that Paralympic athletes aren't elite athletes.


I am offended by the pervasive attitude expressed by the author and many others: that the athletic accomplishments of athletes with impairments are somehow lesser than their able-bodied peers.


Let's start with the first point. “Wheelchair racers are inspiring for sure but it’s not elite sport”. This is simply not true. Here are the hard facts: 11 of the 12 female racers in the 2013 New York City Marathon were Paralympians with 44 medals. 22 of the 54 male racers were Paralympians with 45 medals. That makes 33 Paralympians with 89 combined medals. According to the writer, however, they were inspiring, not elite. But it's the fact that Paralympians are elite athletes that makes them inspiring.


Perhaps the quality of being elite is defined by training, not results. That's a fair point to make. As a Paralympian, who happens to know several of these racers personally, I guarantee you that their training regimen is elite. Being a Paralympian is a full-time job. Training isn't a hobby we do on the weekends. It's a lifestyle.


Broadcasters in the United States, including the “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” aka ESPN, have made strides in their coverage and should be credited for showing Paralympic athletes from across the world, outside of the Paralympic cycle. But the perception that Paralympic athletes are not “elite” athletes persists, at least in the United States.


The comments from LetsRun.com show that there still are people out there who don't value or – worse yet – deride Paralympic sport. Why is this? My guess is that most have never seen a Paralympic competition. Or maybe they have, and devalue the sport because it's not played by able-bodied athletes. So what do we do about this?


First, increase exposure. The number of people who are exposed to Paralympic sport is growing every day. We have NBC, ESPN, C4, and countless others to thank for this. Heading towards Rio, this will only improve.


The second part is harder. How do we convince people that Paralympians are just as elite as Olympians? It's going to take a culture change. And we'll need support from our able-bodied allies. It's one thing for Paralympians like me to sing the praises of other Paralympians. Olympians who support the Paralympic Movement are game changers, however. And I know they are out there.


So I challenge Olympians across the world to support us leading into Rio. With your support, we can achieve equity in the Olympic and Paralympic world. We are all elite athletes. It's time we are treated that way.


And perhaps, bloggers after the 2016 New York City Marathon will be celebrating the success of wheelchair racers right alongside the able-bodied runners.