Sunday, August 16, 2015

PARAPAN AMERICAN GAMES COMES TO ONTARIO

Did you mostly ignore the Parapan Am Games?  You had a lot of company, but they opened up my mind a little.  I had forgotten an experience 39 years ago that impressed me a lot at the time.

In 1976 when the Olympics were held in Montreal, the Paralympics were held in Etobicoke.  Back in those days the two events (for able and disabled) were not necessarily in the same city.  Some countries denied they had a disabled population and in reality they weren't treated as contributors to society.   I had a press pass as I was working on a book on basketball and was able to include wheelchair basketball.  The situation was quite loose and spectators could get very close to the competitions.  I had heard about Arnie Boldt and frankly his achievements seemed like something of a circus act.  He had competition and the event was in the rain.  Tension built up as finally he was the only competitor left.   At the end he set a new world record.  Arnie was one of the flag bearers at the 2015 Parapan Am Games Opening.

The Parapan Am Games were qualifying for the upcoming Paralympics in Brazil meaning most countries sent their best athletes.  Not surprisingly Brazil topped the medals list, followed by host country Canada and the United States.  In the Pan American Games Brazil finished third.

Does society benefit?  The event opens our eyes to abilities, provide models for both the disabled and the able bodied, encourage physical and social activities for more people.  The joy of sports is competition and artistry.  Accessibility and acceptance benefits everyone  CN Tower making extreme EdgeWalk Experience accessible to wheelchairs is more symbolic than anything, but does create some momentum for more practical accessibility solutions.

Classification is the basis for the Games.  They accept a wide variety of disabilities (and on a sliding scale of severity), but try to be fair. Each sport has its own requirements and needs its own classification.  Team sports try to have a balance to include those most severely handicapped.  Missing limbs are easy to spot, but others are handicapped with muscles that atrophied through polio, strokes, etc.  Cerebral palsy is still another handicap.  Blindness has one sport devoted to it--Goalball.  Intellectual limitations (which I thought I heard included autism)   Queasiness is natural viewing amputated and atrophied limbs, but one gets used to it and can better appreciate abilities and the people.

Some events were not really competitive--in some ways the distribution of talent combined with disability cannot be equal--warfare, the randomness of accidents and genetic defects.  However organization and development does play a significant role:  Israel was dominant in wheelchair basketball mainly because they developed rehabilitation programs for returning soldiers.  Competitiveness varies, but can be very riveting.

Most Canadians recognized Rick Mercer carrying the torch and lending his prestige to the event.  Rick Hansen and Chantal Petticlerc, having given Canada some pride lit the flame.  The Canadian flag bearer was Marco Dispaltro who at age 48 was one of the older athletes.  He developed muscular dystrophy and was told he would not live past 40.  Earlier he had taken part in wheelchair rugby and then tennis, before taking up boccia.  Jean Sok B-boy Hourth from France provided some entertainment and amazed people with what he could do with only one leg performing hip hop.  My words don't do him justice-- let him open your eyes with one of his videos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgWLw0nY8r0

The idea for wheelchair basketball originated as a form of netball at Stokes-Mandville as therapy for disabled war vets.  Americans adapted it to basketball.   They have a system to balance differing levels of ability, ironically height still has an advantage.   Players strap themselves to chairs which often tip but are easy to put upright.

Wheelchair basketball-caught parts of several games.  Unfortunately the Canadians lost to the Americans and although I had seen both of them play I didn't see the critical game.  It may be unfair to single out one player, but he certainly got my attention.  Gustavo Villafane of Argentina has only one arm, but was not included just because he lowered the team's physical eligibility requirements but as a major contributor.  He shoots a very high percentage (there are no dunks), but was also impressive rebounding, passing and general defence.  Perhaps the key to marketing is to draw attention to more of the athletes.

Wheelchair rugby in some ways seemed very simple, but much rougher.  I had seen a documentary a few years back called "Murderball" which was mostly about the rivalry between Canada and the United States who in fact met in the finals.  Zak Madell scored most of the goals.

Swimming is something I have watched for years, but learned something new from one of the journalists.  If a pool is deeper, such as the one used in the ParaPan Am swimming it will produce faster times as there is less turbulence. The big swimming winner, Aurelia Rivard was from a small town in Quebec, St Jean-sur-Richelieu that I used to make sales calls to.

Blind running with a guide demands teamwork  Obviously the guide has to be able to keep up with the competitor while at the same time steering and encouraging them.  Trust is vital and no doubt takes time and a lot of practice to develop.  Some with limited vision were able to run without guides.  During the relays some runners used guides while others didn't.

There were many other sports that I caught a snippet of.  This Parapan Pan Am Games included more sports than any previous.  The names mentioned are just a few that somehow got my attention,

I was disappointed Equestrian was not included as at The Rider we have covered many para events.  We are also aware that riding is beneficial for balance, and building confidence.  One Para Equestrian champion took part in the torch relay Jody Schloss who had represented Canada at the London Paralympics as an equestrian.

World Deaf Games is a well developed international event with both a summer and a winter section.  Deaf people do not appear handicapped, but are at a disadvantage competing against hearing opponents.  Still there has been a little carry over that I am sure got a spurt from deaf sports events.

Another legacy is the Athlete's Village located in the Donlands section of Toronto.  It is designed to encourage physical activity with sidewalks double to triple normal size.  It is located with the idea that future residents will be able to easily bike or walk to work.

Closing ceremonies are less formal.  Serena Ryder's singing  to fireworks.  Wyclef Jean performed in English, French and Spanish and was a big crowd favourite.  He had written and performed the official song for the FIFA World Cup in 2014. The mayor of Toronto handed over regalia to the mayor of Lima, Peru the host of the next Parapan Am Games.  Zak Madell was the flag bearer for Canada.

The international spotlight was on Canada and we opened our eyes a bit and advanced the cause of "disabled" people. The biggest Parapan Am Games in history, with more athletes, more countries and more sports.

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