When the magnificent light show of the closing ceremonies rose over Beijing, it wasn’t just Michael Phelps who shined. Nearly 4,000 Paralympic athletes — disabled only by definition, but enabled by the drive to succeed — took the world’s stage and proved that even those who are paraplegic, or blind, or amputees, can break records.
Athletes from 147 countries competed in the 2008 Paralympic Games, which took place from Sept. 6 through 17 in Beijing. O&P Business News spoke with several people who experienced the Paralympics firsthand to determine what makes the Games stand out from any other events.
For one, the competitors are the best disabled athletes in their respective sports in the world, Jason Wening, MS, CP, said.
Wening, clinical research director/certified prosthetist at Scheck and Siress Prosthetics, Orthotics and Pedorthics in Chicago, has competed in swimming events at the Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney, Australia in 2000.
For Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP, vice president of prosthetics for Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics in Orlando, Fla., nothing exceeded the motivation of the roaring crowds this year in Beijing.
“The energy was just phenomenal,” Carroll said.
Since Carroll received credentials to be with the athletes, he was able to experience the crowd from the ground level.
“I went beyond the field and looked up and saw the best part of 90,000 people,” he said. “From there we went over to the [National Aquatics Center, also known as the Water Cube] where the swimming was taking place and that stadium was packed. And from there we went out to the sit volleyball and that was packed. We went to the wheelchair rugby, that was packed.
“If you think of athletes from various parts of the world who never experienced that before … it was amazing,” he said.
Wening echoed that sentiment, saying that there is no comparison between the number of spectators at the Paralympic Games and those at a typical swim meet.
“In Barcelona and Sydney, the swimming venue was often completely full,” he said. “Racing and performing well in front of 20,000 people is an extraordinary experience.”
Like thousands of spectators, Carroll and the others from Hanger attended the Paralympics to cheer on the athletes who worked so hard to get there.
“My role was to give some encouragement to the Hanger athletes that we work with around the country,” Carroll told O&P Business News.
Each day and night, Carroll and his team shouted for the athletes as they sped around the track or competed in events like wheelchair rugby or sitting volleyball.
Wening has experienced the Games from the opposite side. A bilateral transtibial amputee with congenital deformity to his left arm and hand, he has won one bronze and five gold medals at the Paralympics.
“The Paralympic Games are much more than a sporting event for people with disabilities,” he said. “They are a cultural phenomenon that is unprecedented in the world. People who were once institutionalized or allowed to die, people that were frequently assumed to be unable to contribute to society in a meaningful fashion or ostracized are revolutionizing our understanding of the potential of the disabled human body.”
In this way, athletes like Wening — and like one of his competitors, a swimmer with both bilateral hip and shoulder disarticulation amputations — are doing the work of changing the meaning of disabled.
To tend to the athletes’ mechanical needs, Otto Bock HealthCare served as the official repair provider for the Games, a role the company has reprieved for each Paralympics since 1988, according to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Web site. At this year’s Games, there were 86 technicians from around the world available to repair athletes’ prostheses and wheelchairs.
In addition to the support they provided, O&P practitioners like Carroll also used the Paralympics as a way to learn more about these athletes.
“We get an opportunity to see what these athletes are doing on the world stage,” he said. “Who is bringing home the gold medals and breaking the records? What are they doing differently [from other athletes] to allow them to get to that level? Is it the technology, their training or a combination of both?”
Carroll hopes to use this information to better prepare future athletes for competition.
Paralympian and prosthetist
Because Wening has seen both sides of prosthetics for athletes, he is better prepared to help his Paralympics-bound patients. He works with his patients and the team at Scheck and Siress to develop specific techniques and training methods that help these athletes learn to get use their bodies to the maximum potential. This is no small feat and comes with its own degree of pressure.
“In many ways, being a prosthetist is harder than being an elite-level swimmer,” Wening said. “Swimming is a concrete, solitary sport. There is a fixed distance, a lane with specific boundaries and a clock. The objective is simply to cover the fixed distance as fast as possible.”
When treating patients, however, those lanes are as large as the imagination, the waters harder to navigate and there is more at stake.
“As a swimmer, nobody else suffered if I performed poorly. If I perform poorly as a prosthetist, another person suffers the consequences,” he said.
He combats this by drawing on his experiences as an amputee athlete and by working with senior-level practitioners to ensure that patients are receiving the best care possible for their demanding lifestyles.
Tony Filippis, CPO, chief executive officer/president of Wright and Filippis, teamed up with the Public Broadcasting System’s Disabilities Today TV program for a trip to Beijing during the Paralympics. The Disabilities Today crew, headed up by Roger McCarville, filmed the visit for a documentary about China’s efforts to make its cities more accessible for these athletes.
An advocate for the disabled — and an amputee himself — McCarville traveled Beijing mostly in a wheelchair to determine whether the Chinese had succeeded in making the cities accessible for disabled people, and specifically for the Paralympics visitors.
“I don’t think I could have been more impressed with what the Chinese have done to make accommodations for the disabled, which is interesting because you don’t see a lot of disabled people there,” Filippis said.
From ramps and inclined wheelchair lifts to available attendants and special accommodations for the blind, Beijing has been transformed into a city accessible to all who visit.
Filippis also felt that China’s television coverage of the Paralympics had an impact on the way the Chinese view the disabled. It helped them “realize that even though you have a disability, you can still function [at a] high level,” he said.
The United States, however, broadcasted no TV coverage during the Paralympics. For those interested in watching live, the Universal Sports Web site — NBC’s site dedicated to athletics and competitions around the world, including the Olympics and Paralympics — streamed 50 hours of Paralympic events. ParalympicSport.TV, the IPC’s official Internet channel, and YouTube.com also paired up to provide coverage of the Beijing Games.
As of press time, Universal Sports TV had scheduled a week’s worth of 3-hour Paralympic highlights beginning Oct. 8, according to The New York Times blog by Alan Schwarz. In addition, NBC had planned a 90-minute summary of highlights for Oct. 18.
Schwarz wrote that NBC will use this variety of coverage to measure the interest level in the Paralympics and gauge whether TV coverage for the 2010 Games will create enough ad revenue.
Filippis said he was disappointed with the coverage in the United States, where his six children unsuccessfully attempted to watch along with him on TV from their homes in the United States.
“It is a shame [that our] society, from a disabilities standpoint, has done a lot to break down those barriers, but yet here is a time to publicize what the disabled population can do and we have missed the boat,” Filippis said. “They get so keyed up about the Olympics — every night you can watch it for 6-8 hours … for the Paralympics there is nothing.”
He said he hopes that interest — and subsequently advertising revenues — rises enough for future Paralympics that the TV networks deem it worthy to televise.
Especially if Chicago wins the bid for the 2016 Games, Filippis added. Members of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee, led by Patrick Ryan, chairman and chief executive officer, have been working to present the city as the ideal site for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Carroll, on the other hand, praised NBC for sending a crew to Beijing to record footage. He was confident that the network’s Oct. 18 feature would raise awareness among viewers.
Aside from the lack of TV coverage, Carroll was impressed with the amount of attention paid to the athletes by the United States.
“The U.S. Paralympic committee did a fabulous job supporting the athletes and giving them the encouragement that they needed,” Carroll said. “The U.S. had a great contingency there.”
Filippis referred to the number of world records broken in the 2008 Paralympics as a testament to the talent of the Paralympic athletes.
Carroll attributed this to the tone of the Beijing Games. Because the athletes worked so hard to get there, he said, the city buzzed with that excitement and adrenaline.
“I think even [athletes] themselves will find the records for this past Paralympics hard to break because of that atmosphere.”
As interest in world-class athletics increases among the disabled population and more athletes participate in the Games, Filippis hopes that the Games’ classification guidelines will narrow. Currently, athletes with different disabilities or degrees of disability compete next to each other in the same events. With a larger number of athletes, the events could be more evenly and fairly separated.
The responsibility of informing people about amputees’ ability to compete belongs to the O&P community, Filippis continued. He stressed the importance of changing not only the physical layout of a building or a community, but the mindset of the people as well.
For one, the battle to allow prosthesis-wearing amputees to compete in the Olympics — initiated by Oscar Pistorius, a bilateral transtibial amputee who earlier this year won the decision to compete in trials for the Olympics but did not qualify — is “a step in the right direction” for all amputees, Filippis said.
“There obviously was a lot of discussion [among spectators in Beijing] that he had an unfair advantage, which is ludicrous,” he said. “They should be able to compete.”
Looking toward the 2012 Paralympics in London, Carroll said he plans to be there, offering the same enthusiasm to the athletes. Until then, he will continue to support his young patients to pursue their dreams and offer information about how to prepare for the competition.
“It is up to us as professionals to encourage, from a young age, our patients to compete, be active, and to help them with their equipment to get out there and do some amazing things,” he said.
“We have young up-and-coming athletes around the U.S. that can make the English Paralympics a huge success for the United States. Hopefully 4 years from now, we will say how phenomenal the Paralympics were in England,” he said.
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Stephanie Z. Pavlou is a staff writer for O&P Business News.