By Tara Kusumoto
The Paralympics – often mistakenly called the Para-Olympics – are for elite athletes with physical disabilities.
An alpine skier who’s visually impaired relies on her guide as her “sight” to stay on course. A soldier who lost both of his legs in Iraq races on prosthetic legs in his first Paralympic competition. A Nordic athlete swaps her wheelchair for a sit-ski for the 10 kilometer classic cross country race.
Along with visually impaired (VI), amputee and spinal injuries, athlete disability categories include Cerebral Palsy, which affects movement, reflexes and posture, as well as “les autres,” encompassing physical disabilities such as Dwarfism and Multiple Sclerosis.
Held at the same competition venues as the Olympics, the Paralympic Winter Games feature five sports: alpine skiing (downhill, Super-G, Super Combined, Giant Slalom and Slalom), cross country skiing, biathlon, sled hockey (also known as ice sledge hockey), and wheelchair curling. Both alpine and Nordic are further separated into “standing,” “sitting” and “visually impaired” categories to fairly match athletes against like abilities.
“Every day, every year, every Games, we continue to break thresholds and increase in excellence,” said Charlie Huebner, Chief of Paralympics, U.S. Olympic Committee. “Competitors are getting stronger, sports are developing and performances are phenomenal.”
13 women and 37 men will represent Team USA in 2010, and while they certainly have podium potential, Huebner says that “having the team represent our country and perform at the best of their abilities is what success will be.”
Building Community, Developing Athletes
For the U.S. Paralympics, establishing community-level resources for kids with physical disabilities goes hand in hand with developing a pipeline of future Paralympians. The organization’s Paralympic Sport Clubs create a healthier population of kids with physical disabilities by offering them the chance to participate in daily activity and sport.
“With physical activity comes engagement,” says Huebner, “and we see every day how being integrated as part of the peer process has positive social impact on those individuals.”
Continued emphasis on developing programs around the country will help the organization grow from 114 clubs today to their goal of 250 by 2012. And with that growth, chances are we’ll see a natural pipeline of elite athletes who may one day aspire to Paralympic dreams.
Where to Watch
Both in the U.S. and around the world, Huebner observes that the Paralympic movement is making more of an impact, leading to further integration of programming with the Olympics. This year, for example, the Olympic men’s and women’s hockey coaches and the Paralympic sled hockey coaches were named at the same time.
While U.S. broadcast of the Paralympics does not yet match that of the Olympics, coverage continues to improve thanks to increased interest from the American public, and increased support from individual and corporate sponsors.
This year, you can catch Opening Ceremonies and recaps on NBC Sports and Universal Sports:
* NBC Sports Opening Ceremony highlights – Saturday, March 13, 1:00-2:00 p.m. ET
* NBC Sports Paralympics recap – Saturday, April 10, 3:00-5:00 p.m. ET
* Universal Sports nightly two hour program – Monday, March 15–Tuesday March 23, 7:00 p.m. ET (re-air at 11:00 p.m. ET)
* U.S. Paralympic Team – daily video and news highlights
* Paralympic Sport TV – live daily coverage online
Tara Kusumoto is blogging from Whistler, British Columbia. Stay tuned for athlete profiles and competition results during the Paralympic Winter Games.