medals are good, equality is better

I had been saving this story for a time when I could write some insightful commentary, but rather than grow old waiting, I'll let the story speak for itself. It ran in the New York Times a few days before the start of the Beijing Paralympics. I hope you'll read the whole thing. (Emphasis mine, of course.)

I've covered this lawsuit and similar actions before for a disability audience, and I was thrilled to see a major mainstream story on it. Many thanks to Alan Schwarz for his excellent coverage of the Paralympics for the Times. Schwarz really gets disability sports. Too bad the United States Olympic Committee doesn't.
When he rolls to the starting line for the 1,500-meter wheelchair race at the Paralympics, the Olympics for disabled athletes that begin Saturday in Beijing, Tony Iniguez will wear his Team USA uniform with pride. He will compete for the United States's Olympic program. He is also suing it for discrimination.

Iniguez is one of many Paralympians who criticize the United States Olympic Committee for providing less direct financial assistance and other benefits at lower levels to Paralympic athletes than to Olympians in comparable sports. The committee awards smaller quarterly training stipends and medal bonuses to Paralympic athletes. Benefits like free health insurance, which help athletes devote more hours to training, are available to a smaller percentage of Paralympians.

The United States is no stranger to disputes over discrimination against various groups and the provision of benefits for citizens, as the battle over universal health insurance indicates. But in this case the Paralympians are emphasizing their needs as athletes as much as their needs as citizens. They claim that races have been lost and medals squandered by their having to compete against athletes from nations like Canada and Britain that support their disabled athletes and Olympians virtually equally.

Iniguez, a 37-year-old high school art teacher here, says that because he has had to work full time to provide his family's health insurance and has received almost no assistance from the U.S.O.C., he will race in Beijing relatively unprepared for the serious competition.

"I'm going to do my best over there, believe me — but I can't help but wonder what I could do if I'd been able to fully train the last four years," he said. Iniguez added that equal support to disabled athletes was as logical as the reforms that have opened equal sports opportunity to women: "Male and female, are you going to discriminate on the basis of sex? It's unfathomable now. We don't give different support to women."

The sprinter Kortney Clemons, one of many injured Iraq war veterans who have become elite disabled athletes, agreed with Iniguez's frustration.

"I thought that when I was protecting this country, we had the best," said Clemons, a former combat medic in Iraq who lost his right leg in an explosion. "We do things right, we do things the best way. And just to know that other countries can man up and support their Paralympic athletes, and we're not, it's disappointing."

Other disabled athletes said they viewed the situation differently. Marlon Shirley, a champion amputee sprinter, said that benefits for Paralympic athletes had improved but could not reach Olympic equality.

"On paper, it looks absolutely atrocious — I'm aware of that — but the Olympics is big business," Shirley said. He added that when an American sprinter wins a gold medal at the Olympics, "compared to when Marlon Shirley wins the gold medal in the Paralympics, commercially, it's a hell of a lot greater."

In hearing the lawsuit brought by Iniguez and two retired wheelchair racers, the United States District Court and the United States Court of Appeals have ruled that the U.S.O.C. has the legal discretion to finance able-bodied and disabled athletes differently. (The case has been appealed to the Supreme Court.) But even the District Court judge who ruled against Iniguez in 2006 wrote: "Do I decry a culture that relegates Paralympians to second-class status in the quantity and quality of benefits and support they receive from the U.S.O.C.? Emphatically yes."

A Bump in Financing

The U.S.O.C. contends that equitable support to Paralympic athletes is unrealistic because the agency receives almost no government assistance, and Paralympic success does not generate enough increased revenue.

Darryl Seibel, the U.S.O.C.'s chief communications officer, also emphasized that the agency’s support for Paralympic athletes has grown markedly: to $11.4 million this year from $3 million in 2004, in contrast with a relatively modest bump in Olympic funding.

"I see $3 million going up to $11 million and say that's not too bad — that's a good direction," Seibel said. "We care more about the Paralympics than we ever have before."

He added, "We're much closer to the beginning of our support and involvement in the Paralympic movement than we are to being a finished product."

Olympic-caliber athletes in the United States are generally financed by two agencies — the U.S.O.C. and the national governing body of their sport. Paralympians are supported almost exclusively by the U.S.O.C.

While line-by-line comparisons are difficult because programs have different designs, almost every form of support that a Paralympic contender receives is considerably less than that given to a similarly situated Olympian.

For example, in 2007, members of the United States Paralympic track and field team were given either $1,000 or $2,000 in stipends to help defray the cost of training; similar Olympic hopefuls received $10,000 to $15,000. Slots for athletes to receive room and board for full-time training at centers in Colorado Springs and Chula Vista, Calif., were also more open to Olympic athletes than Paralympic athletes; wheelchair athletes had no live-in program at all.

Over all, the rules covering which athletes qualify for U.S.O.C.-paid health insurance are considerably more strict for Paralympians than Olympians. According to the U.S.O.C., in 2007 there were 174 insurance policies given to Paralympic athletes vying to make the 200-member Beijing team; Olympic hopefuls had 1,150 policies, enough for the entire 600-member team in Beijing and almost another full team. Most athletes interviewed said that securing health insurance without a full-time job was the primary avenue to effective training.

Gaps in Bonuses

The most striking difference between the funding of Paralympic and Olympic athletes, some contend, is in the cash bonuses given for top performances. Olympic gold medalists in Beijing received $25,000 from the U.S.O.C. and often additional money from their national governing body; Paralympic gold medalists will get $5,000 from the U.S.O.C. For 2007 competitions, the U.S.O.C. distributed $1.85 million in performance bonuses, none of it to Paralympic athletes, the U.S.O.C.’s Seibel confirmed.

Two women United States Paralympians who because of their family roots could compete for European countries said that they had strongly considered competing for that other nation because training would be more affordable. (They asked not to be identified for fear of backlash from the U.S.O.C. and their teammates.) One prominent American coach did switch affiliations — Peter Eriksson, now a consultant for Canada's Paralympic track and field program, said he resigned as coach of the United States Paralympic track and field team two years ago because, "I couldn't do my job," he said.

"In the United States, the athletes are as determined, but they can't access the services they need to compete at the elite level," Eriksson said. "A lot of their athletes never developed out of the gate. They had humungous potential, and it just evaporated."
[Ed note: Eriksson is Chantal Petitclerc's coach.]

Iniguez said he wondered if he was one of those athletes. Unable to walk without crutches since polio ravaged his legs at age 2, Iniguez was a rising star in wheelchair racing during the 1990s. He missed the 2000 Paralympics because he could not afford to leave his job at Aurora East High, his alma mater.

In the years that followed, Iniguez squeezed in whatever training he could on mornings when it was warm enough, and occasionally after school. But he slipped from internationally elite status to a virtual hobbyist. By the time the U.S.O.C. started offering health insurance and $250 to $500 quarterly training stipends to some of its top Paralympic contenders several years ago, Iniguez was no longer enough of a medal hopeful to qualify.

Iniguez said he attended the United States Paralympic track and field trials this year "just to see what I was still capable of." He won the 1,500-meter sprint — one of wheelchair racing's marquee events — to earn a place on the United States team.

Iniguez and two other top American wheelchair racers, Scot Hollonbeck and Jacob Heilveil, filed their discrimination suit against the U.S.O.C. five years ago. The committee successfully argued in United States District Court and the United States Court of Appeals that the Olympic and Paralympic programs are distinct — and that anyone capable of making the Olympic team receives premium support, regardless of disability.

The wheelchair racers contended that federal law forbade a university from fielding an all-male track team by claiming, "A woman can be on it if she runs fast enough." They said that similar logic should require that disabled athletes under the U.S.O.C. umbrella receive equal support to able-bodied athletes.

Going Unprepared

With his suit awaiting consideration by the Supreme Court, Iniguez now finds himself in the awkward position of racing on behalf of a team he is also suing.

"I am not doing it for personal gain," said Iniguez, who is not seeking financial damages. "I'm doing it to make the sport better for other future athletes."

Iniguez is one of many United States Paralympians who said they would attend the Beijing Games relatively unprepared, compared with their competition. Tyler Byers, a 26-year-old wheelchair racer who works full time as an engineering analyst in Washington and squeezes in training in his free time, said, "There's no reason someone like me should be representing us in the Paralympic Games."

The United States's performance at the Paralympics has decreased markedly over the last 20 years. It won about 12 percent of medals in the Summer Games of 1988 and 1992, but in 2004 won just 5.6 percent of medals, well behind China (9 percent) and in a pack that included Australia (6.4), Britain (6.1), Germany (5.0), Canada (4.7) and Spain (4.5) — nations with far smaller populations.

Liz Nicholl, Britain's director of elite sport, said that the manner in which the United States supported its disabled athletes was a top cause of the decrease. "I would say that this a nation that is choosing to underperform," she said.

The British wheelchair racing champion David Weir said competitions were marred by the United States's approach. "It's the sort of thing you'd expect from a third-world country in Africa — I think it's quite disgusting, actually," Weir said. "They've got talented athletes coming from there that could bring back medals from Beijing and London, and it looks like they don’t really care."

Every nation has a different mix of Paralympic services and financing plans. For example, Britain and Canada provide living and training support from the equivalent of $18,000 to about $50,000 annually based solely on the athlete's standing internationally, not on whether he or she is an Olympian or a Paralympian. Athletes competing for nations like Canada do not have medical-insurance costs because of nationalized health care. Britain offers a special health-insurance program to Olympians and Paralympians.

"The principle is you're a member of the same organization with the same goals and performance targets, so of course there will be an equivalent level of services provided," said Rob Needham, the senior manager of high performance for the Canadian Paralympic Committee. "The Paralympians are on the same team as the Olympians. They are siblings, not step-siblings."

'Slower to React'

Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, called the United States "slower to react" to Paralympic support than nations well beyond Canada and Britain, citing Brazil, Iran and France. "I find it strange in the 21st century," he said. "We would expect of the U.S. to be one of the leading nations when it comes to this sort of principle."

Marlon Shirley, the amputee sprinter, said he understood the principles at play but that he also felt like saying, "Shut up and race." Shirley won his first Paralympic gold in 2000 when he had virtually no financing from the U.S.O.C., and emphasized that "programs are much better now than they've ever been." He said that market forces played a greater role in the United States — where the Paralympics have almost no television coverage — than in other countries, whose sports fans have shown interest in disabled athletics.

Many Paralympians interviewed said a chicken-and-egg dynamic now exists: the U.S.O.C. is waiting for Paralympic sports to generate more revenue, but that revenue will not grow without greater support for disabled athletes. Only then, the athletes said, can they truly compete internationally.

"We are very much focusing on growing the Paralympic movement in the United States," said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the U.S.O.C. "That is no doubt complicated. The reality is that we also don't have unlimited resources."

If resources remain fixed, at least one Olympian has come to support giving up some of her financing to create more equality with Paralympians. Simi Adeagbo, a triple-jumper who did not make the Olympic team, said that after spending most of this year training with the amputee sprinter April Holmes and several other Paralympians at the Olympic center in Chula Vista, her view of disabled athletes had changed.

"Before this experience, maybe just as a general American, I didn't have access to know the Paralympians," Adeagbo said. "You don't know them. You don't know their stories. You don't know how they train and try to win medals on behalf of their country. You don't even know, really, that they exist.

"So to ask an Olympian would you want to lose benefits because of something you've never heard of or doesn't exist sounds crazy. But if you gave them an opportunity to see what I've seen and experience what I’ve experienced, I think they'd change their mind."

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