At the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Athens, a Canadian wheelchair athlete by the name of Chantal Petitclerc won the women’s 800-metre sprint before a packed stadium of track and field fans. The crowds cheered just as loudly for her medal ceremony as they did for the able-bodied events, despite the fact that it was a demonstration sport and medals were not awarded.
By including a wheelchair event usually reserved for the Paralympics in the Olympics, organizers made a bold statement in support of the sport while showing that disabled athletes are every bit as deserving of Olympic status as able-bodied athletes. So why, I wonder, are the Olympics and Paralympics still separate?
As a Games host we’re constantly reminded that the Paralympics are their own unique, standalone event, although no country can bid for an Olympics and choose not to host the Paralympics as well two weeks later. Given the choice, I wonder how many countries would willingly host a second massive international event just weeks after hosting the biggest event on the planet?
Some people want to keep the events separate, with separate organizing bodies, different sponsors, and other distinctions. They believe their sports and athletes would be lost in a wider Olympic program, and that the Paralympics should stand on their own, separate but equal.
Others believe that the separation hurts the Paralympics, and that athletes like Chantal Petitclerc should have the opportunity to contend for Olympic medals. As Petitclerc herself noted, “An Olympic medal is worth more to me than a Paralympic medal.”
Not because she thinks the Paralympics are a lesser event than the Olympics, but because she believes her sport is as legitimate and challenging as any able-bodied sport, and that she would be able to beat any able-bodied person in a wheelchair event.
Believe it or not, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympics Winter Games is the first organizing committee to combine leadership and resources for both events. It makes sense — the athletes use the same venues, with a few modifications, and generally follow the same rules. The only difference is that one set of events is sanctioned by the IOC, and the other by the IPC.
I’m sure the real reason the two events are still separate is more complicated than it appears, especially when you look at issues like television broadcast rights, Olympic and Paralympic sponsors, and the logistics of combining events.
But while I could probably be convinced that the Summer Olympics and Paralympics might be too large to combine — there were 301 Olympic gold medals and 519 Paralympic gold medals awarded in 2004 — I think both events could co-exist in the much smaller, much more compact Winter Games quite nicely.