From the Toronto Star:
In Chantal Petitclerc's first trip to the Commonwealth Games, officials chased her and other wheelchair athletes off the track, complaining their tires would damage the racing surface.Also in the Star, the great Canadian athlete Rick Hansen says it's high time for complete equality between the Olympics and the Paralympics.
But that was 16 years ago. Since then, Petitclerc has won 11 Paralympic gold medals and smashed many world records and social barriers.
These days Petitclerc, now the most accomplished wheelchair racer in the sport, isn't merely welcome at the Commonwealth Games. She's an equal.
Petitclerc, 36, carried Canada's flag at today's opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia. She is the first athlete with a disability to serve as Canada's flag-bearer in an Olympic, Pan American or Commonwealth Games, and symbolizes the progress disabled athletes have made since her career started.
"It has a special connotation for me because the recognition is there from the Games and now it's there from the team as well," Petitclerc said in a phone interview before leading the Canadian team into the opening ceremony. "It's very unique and special. It tells how far we have come."
At Petitclerc's first trip to the Commonwealth Games, 1990 in Auckland, New Zealand, wheelchair athletes weren't even included in the opening ceremony. "It was a frustrating experience, both as an athlete and a human being," she said.
Dr. Ross Outerbridge, Canada's chef de mission for the Games, said several athletes were nominated for the honour but only one really had a chance.
"It was really a straightforward and easy choice for us because of her accomplishments in sport."
More than two decades have passed since I wheeled on to the track and heard the cheers of the crowd at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.Read Hansen's essay here.
It was 1984 and eight of us were participating in what was the first-ever wheelchair sport demonstration.
My dream back then was that one day our athletes with a disability would have equal recognition. Today, as Canada's best competes at the ninth Paralympic Winter Games that dream remains unfulfilled. My challenge to Canadians is to see our team and indeed all the participants recognized as athletes first.
. . . .
We will have an unprecedented opportunity to burst through these remaining barriers once and for all in 2010. The whole world will be watching Canada when we host the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Let's use the opportunity to create a model unique to Canada; one that bridges the Olympics and the Paralympics and reflects a society that is inclusive of all its citizens. We can demonstrate our commitment to people with spinal cord injury and related disabilities to include them in society fully, as equals. . . .
I would urge all Canadians that as our Paralympic athletes capture medals in Turin, their achievements are celebrated with the same kind of enthusiasm afforded to Cindy Klassen and others.
Then, let's begin building a truly Canadian model of inclusiveness for 2010 which ensures that the Games and the benefits of hosting them are applied equally to all our athletes.