The 2008 Paralympics: Champions in Beijing

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By Morgan Stanfield
Photograph courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.
Photograph courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics.

This is no feel-good story, and no Paralympic athlete would tell you it should be. Our culture, so oriented toward "normal, able" bodies, usually relegates elite athletes with disabilities to the "heartwarming" human-interest backwaters of the 6:00 news and the "Community Living" sections of local papers. They're beneath the notice of C-SPAN, and if they make the news, it's often because they're considered novel for competing at all while having a limb difference, neurological disorder, blindness, or other disability. They're also relegated to competing in second- and third-tier venues, which their fans rarely fill. According to The New York Times, until they reach international competition, they generally lack the scholarships, sponsorships, and other support oftentimes garnered by slower, lower-scoring, able-bodied cohorts. The actual scope of their skill and dedication becomes shadowed by their disability.

Therein lies the power of the Paralympics. The world's premiere competition for people with disabilities is not extraordinary simply because it has become the second-largest sporting event in the world and the top-shelf disabled athletic venue. Its great triumph is that in bringing together thousands of athletes with similar medical conditions, those conditions fade into their rightful place, mere footnotes in the extraordinary stories of the athletes' lives. Those stories, the real stories, are narratives of raw talent, intense joy, brutal disappointment, and unrelenting dedication. They are the stories of the 2008 Paralympics.

 

A Brief History of the Paralympic Games

The Summer Paralympics have experienced explosive growth in their 40-year history. Their original opening ceremony was an archery competition on the front lawn of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in southeastern England, when 16 paralyzed World War II veterans loosed their arrows on the same day the 1948 London Olympics began. Four years later, a handful of Dutch co-competitors convened on the hospital, making the competition the first international sporting event for people with disabilities. The idea of an international Games for people with disabilities ignited the imaginations of competitors, their physicians, and institutions.

Jeff Skiba
Jeff Skiba

By 1960, the Games had official status, and Rome hosted the first Summer Paralympic Games. About 400 wheelchair athletes from 23 countries competed. It was not until 1976 that the first Winter Games were held, in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.

The Games have always happened in the same year as the Olympics, and in 1988, began to be held in the same cities. In 1998, activist groups and Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA) helped pass the laws that made Paralympic athletes full members of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). In 2001, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) signed an agreement that Olympic host cities would manage both Olympic and Paralympic Games. The agreement was meant to go into effect for London's 2012 Games, but Beijing saw the first example of nearly complete integration of the venues.

Beijing 2008:'Two Games, Equal Splendor'

Jim Bob Bizzell
Jim Bob Bizzell

The theme of the 2008 Paralympic Games was "Two Games, Equal Splendor." China produced splendor. Kirk Bauer, JD, executive director of DS/USA, is a member of the President's Council on Fitness, and was appointed to the U.S. Presidential delegation to represent the United States at the opening ceremonies of the Games. Bauer called the three-hour opening ceremonies "absolutely mind blowing." He said, "It was done with tremendous artistic talent and a strong positive message. They utilized people with disabilities in the opening ceremonies in a way that showed their disabilities but showed that the message was about ability.... In one routine, 750 deaf dancers in very brightly lit white gowns performed a dance using sign language while moving together in the center stage to form figuresblooming lotus flowers, Chinese characters, concentric circles, moving shapes. It was absolutely gorgeous."

The vast gala of the opening ceremonies was just one part of an event that was produced with a precision, generosity, and attention to detail that could only be called magnificent. Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP, vice president of prosthetics at Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, Bethesda, Maryland, traveled to Beijing to provide moral support for athletes who receive care at Hanger. He said, "You know, I hate to use the word army,' but it was like there was an army of helpers everywhere." China spent $40 billion on infrastructure, including the Beijing National Stadium (the Birds Nest), the Beijing National Aquatics Center (the Water Cube), the Olympic Green, and other Olympic and Paralympic venues. According to Bauer, China spent more than $100 million making the venues, the city, and major local attractions accessible.

Rudy Garcia-Tolson
Rudy Garcia-Tolson

The spending was just part of an effort that transcended monetary wealth. Though China poured vast resources into the facilities, infrastructure, events, and training of some 100,000 volunteers, just as impressive was the care and delight with which the Chinese people greeted the Paralympic athletes who spoke with The O&P EDGE. Brian Frasure, CP, a legendary sprinter and member of the 2008 U.S. team that set the world record in the 4 x 100-meter transtibial relay, said, "Everywhere we went, people were stopping and asking for autographs and pictures, and always greeting you with smiling faces. I was very, very impressed with the Chinese people." Frasure knows how extraordinary this greeting was. The 35-year-old has participated in every Summer Paralympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games. At this years 4 x 100-meter relay, some 91,000 fans packed the sold-out Birds Nest. That was more than attended the event at all three of Frasures previous Paralympics combined.

Triumph and Disappointment

Roy Perkins Jr.
Roy Perkins Jr.

However, not even the best support can undo the fact that in every competition, some athletes triumph and some are disappointed. Frasure (who also took a bronze in the 100-meter sprint) and some of his teammates in the U.S. track and field contingent were lucky. Their superhuman training schedules, extraordinary talent, and supremely tuned equipment prevailed as predicted to bring them a motherlode of what the athletes call "hardware." Among them were Jeff Skiba, world-record holder and gold medalist in the high jump, gold medalist in the javelin throw, and silver medalist in the pentathlon; Jeremy Campbell, winner of a world-record gold medal in the pentathlon and another gold in discus; Jerome Singleton Jr., winner of the silver medal in the 100-meter sprint and co-winner of the gold in the 4 x 100; and Jim Bob Bizzell, who took the 400-meter silver and was part of the winning 4 x 100-meter team. They were the lucky ones. Others, like two-time Paralympian and defender of the gold in the transtibial 100-meter sprint, Marlon Shirley, were not. In the 100-meter finals, he pulled slightly ahead, then, in the milliseconds with which wins are measured in his sport, his powerful body crumpled, somersaulted, and was writhing in pain on the track as he clutched the ankle of his sound right leg. After months recovering from other injuries, Shirley had ruptured his Achilles tendon and sustained a five-inch rip along its length.

Oscar Pistorius, Jerome Singleton Jr., Marlon Shirley, Brian Frasure, Steven Wilson
Oscar Pistorius, Jerome Singleton Jr., Marlon Shirley, Brian Frasure, Steven Wilson

April Holmes was another lucky one--barely. Holmes was running in the 200-meter sprint, an event that she was expected by most accounts to win. Within yards of the finish line, she slightly stubbed the toe of her prosthesis on the track. She fell hard, and the sprinter in the next lane accidently stepped on Holmes face with her spiked racing prosthesis. Holmes got away with a gashed cheek and a slice across--but not through--one eyelid. Holmes described herself as immensely grateful to have kept her sight--and to have taken gold in her next race, the 100-meter sprint.

Maintaining (Working) Order

April Holmes
April Holmes

Overall, Team USA captured 36 gold medals, 35 silver, and 28 bronze, in third place behind Chinas 211 total medals and Great Britain's 103. Many of those wins were connected to the almost ceaseless work of Scott Sabolich, CP, LP, Team USA's official prosthetist, and the practitioners at Otto Bocks Paralympic Village repair shop. Sabolich said, "When you have that many athletes at that many venues all the time, you're working from about 7:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night. Youre trackside, tweaking, tuning, being there for support." The prostheses he worked on were built with a variety of skills and techniques. Some were like trying to work on "a racecar with the hood welded shut." He came away driven to create a set of instructions for building standardized, optimized, trackside-serviceable racing prostheses.

The Future of the Paralympics

Jeremy Campbell
Jeremy Campbell

Because of the work of attendees, the future of the Paralympics may be different in many ways. No U.S. television network broadcast the Games. Bauer believes that will only happen after the Summer Games simplifies by adopting the numerical handicapping or "factoring" system of the Winter Games, a goal he is pushing for 2016. The system combines nearly all disability categories into "standing," "sitting," or "blind" events, and all athletes within those categories compete together, then have points added or removed from their scores in each event, based on averages for people with their disability.

Dean Karnazes, former world-champion able-bodied ultra-marathoner, once said that in a 100-mile foot race, you can run the first 50 miles with your legs--the rest you have to run with your heart. Paralympic athletes, from the time they join the community of those with disabilities, seem to run, roll, shoot, or swim with their hearts in every event. Some even seem to compete at elite levels solely because they stay connected with an inestimable inner strength. Rudy Garcia-Tolson, a double-medaling U.S. swimmer, said, "Having no legs is really a gift.... If I wasn't an amputee, I probably wouldn't have the same drive to do what I do." That's no feel-good story. That's the story of triumph.

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at morgan@opedge.com

Editor's note:  For interviews with Paralympians and their prosthetists, see the related articles below.