Sports for disabled athletes have full-medal status in Manchester



DONNA SPENCER

(CP) - If Chantal Petitclerc wins a gold medal in the women's 800-metre wheelchair race at the Commonwealth Games, at long last that medal will show up in Canada's medal standings. Sports for athletes with a disability will be full medal events for the first time at a multi-sport Games at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England, July 25 to Aug. 4.

"It's very significant," said Petitclerc. "It's been a while, but we feel we are recognized, especially in Canada, by the other athletes, by the media, by the sponsors so the final step is to have a medal that counts. So I think it is great."

The 32-year-old from Montreal remembers what it was like at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1990 when she and fellow Canadian Jeff Adams, a world-class wheelchair racer, were not allowed to participate in the opening ceremonies or train with the other athletes because their events were demonstration sports.

The 1994 Games in Victoria staged men's wheelchair racing as a demonstration sport, but not women's, and four years ago in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, there were no disabled events.

Following that, an agreement was reached that the Commonwealth Games would include a minimum of two sports for athletes with disabilities. Manchester will exceed that with swimming, track and field, lawn bowling, table tennis and weightlifting as full medal sports.

"There's five sports so that's very good because the minimum two sports is exceeded," said Louis Barbeau, who was the assistant chef de mission of the Canadian Paralympic team in 2000.

"In 2006, Melbourne has committed to have as many sports as possible. If Canada gets the Games in 2010, it's quite obvious Canada is committed to include athletes with a disability."

Diane Roy of Lac-des-Aigles, Que., will join Petitclerc in the women's wheelchair race, Vivian Berkeley of Kitchener, Ont., is competing in lawn bowling and Ken Doyle of St. John's, Nfld., will represent Canada in weightlifting.

Canada's five swimmers will be Danielle Campo of Tecumseh, Ont., Kirby Cote of Winnipeg, Stephanie Dixon of Caledon, Ont., Phillipe Gagnon of Ste-Foy, Que., and Benoit Huot of St-Hubert, Que.

While the Manchester Games will showcase sports for the disabled alongside able-bodied sports, the menu of sports for the disabled looks like a hodgepodge.

Women's wheelchair racing is included, but men's wheelchair racing, considered by many the most competitive and glamorous of all disabled events, is not. That means Adams, a multi-gold medallist at the Paralympic Games, will not race.

Instead, the men's event at the track will be a 100-metre sprint for the blind.

There is a table tennis event for women but not for men and a weightlifting competition for men, but not for women.

In lawn bowling, the women's event is a singles competition for visually impaired while the men's is a triples competition for physically disabled.

The International Paralympic Committee's philosophy in the selection of sports was to include both genders and all types of disabilities.

"We looked to balance the program, opportunities for men and women and also for disability throughout the sports," said David Grevemberg, the committee's sport director.

Grevemberg pointed out that men's wheelchair racing has been part of the track and field schedule at the Olympic Games for a while.

"There has been the 1,500 metres, I believe, since 1984 in the Olympic Games," said Grevemberg. "There are opportunities for those athletes where blind athletes have never been in a major event like this other than of course, Edmonton (last year), where we had multi-disability at the world (athletics) championship."

Adams, who will be on the sidelines in Manchester as a sports commentator for CBC, disagrees with the IPC ranking inclusion over competitiveness.

"I think it's more this artificial levelling of the playing field," said Adams. "Part of the problem is the Commonwealth Games has to make the decision whether it is an elite competition or not."

He doesn't fault the Commonwealth Games, saying that the Games organizers were guided by the advice of the IPC.

"The Commonwealth Games is doing the best they can with the information they have available," said Adams. "It's internally where we need to get our house in order.

"The events that got selected for the Commonwealth Games, there was really no rhyme or reason for it."

Petitclerc agrees that men's wheelchair racing should be part of the Games.
"In Victoria, they didn't have the women racing and I didn't think that was fair," she said. "Now, they don't have the men and I don't think that's fair.

When you look at it objectively, men's wheelchair racing is the most high level Paralympic sport.

"As athletes, we have no idea how these decisions are made. I just hope they don't have the attitude of 'Let's give everybody a chance' because that's not what high-level sport is about."

The women's 800 metres should be a marquee event at the track, pitting Petitclerc, the world record-holder, against rival Louise Sauvage of Australia.

Petitclerc and Barbeau say it isn't realistic to fully integrate the Paralympic Games with the Olympic Games, but these Commonwealth Games may provide some impetus to have more disabled sports included at their respective world championships for able-bodied athletes.

Some facts about the athletes competing in the Commonwealth Games in sports for athletes with a disability, which will be full-medal events for the first time at a multi-sport Games:

Sports for athletes with a disability - Swimming, athletics, lawn bowling, table tennis, weightlifting.

Canadian athletes - Chantal Petitclerc, Montreal, Diane Roy, Lac-des-Aigles, Que., women's 800-metre wheelchair; Vivian Berkley, Kitchener, Ont., women's visually impaired lawn bowling; Ken Doyle, St. John's Nfld., weightlifting; Danielle Campo, Tecumseh, Ont., Kirby Cote, Winnipeg, Stephanie Dixon, Caledon, Ont., Phillipe Gagnon, Ste-Foy, Que., Benoit Huot, St-Hubert, Que., swimming.


© The Canadian Press, 2002