Hockey players take the ice on sleds slamming into each other, while a snowboarder glides down the alpine slope on one leg. It is difficult to imagine such sights at the Olympic Games, but they take place every four years shortly after the closing of the Olympics at the same host city, albeit unnoticed.
▲ The Paralympic logo Provided By the International Paralympic Committee
The Olympic fever has taken over the world as the 2014 Winter Olympics began in Sochi, Russia on February 7. The scale of the event was truly unprecedented. The hosting nation Russia, had spent 51 billion dollars in preparing for this massive quadrennial festival that celebrates athletic excellence. Major global corporations have flocked to Sochi to advertise their brands, and more than 100 broadcasters were airing the event to viewers from around the world. It is no overstatement to say “all eyes were on Sochi.”
However, despite such attention on the Olympic Games, not many are aware of an event that begins mere two weeks after the closing of the Olympics, the Paralympics. There are far less sponsors and broadcasters. The event only features five sports and lasts half as long as the Olympics. Nevertheless, the Paralympic Games serve as the highest stage of athletic competition for the disabled, a channel of communication between the disabled and the rest of the society, a source of inspiration for all.
The Paralympics was not the first attempt to open an athletic competition for the disabled. Sports for athletes with disabilities have existed for more than 100 years. But it was after World War II that the development of disabled sports accelerated, when many war-torn nations with millions of injured servicemen began utilizing sports as means of rehabilitation. Those efforts first transformed into recreational, then subsequently into competitive form.
Beginning with the first ever 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome, Paralympics has been formalized into an international multi-sport event. It involves athletes with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities, including mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, and cerebral palsy. Twenty-six years later, in 1976, the first Paralympic Winter Games were held in Sweden, and as with the Summer Games, have taken place every four years. Since the Summer Games of Seoul, Korea in 1988; and the Winter Games in Albertville, France in 1992; the Paralympic Games have also taken part in the same cities and venues as the Olympics with an agreement between the International Paralympic Commitee (IPC) and International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para” and the word “Olympic.” It means that Paralympics is a competition held in parallel to the Olympics and that the two events exist side-by-side. Its core values comprise of courage, determination, inspiration, and equality. The games always aspire to be a bridge which links sports with social awareness, thus contributing to the development of a more equitable society with respect and equal opportunities for all individuals.
Many evaluate the Paralympics positively since it has been an opportunity for the disabled to both recognize and materialize their potentials. The benefits of the games trickle down even to those who are not participating in the games. The general public’s heightened perception of people with disabilities attained from the games, are likely to lead to expansion in funding for rehabilitation services and construction of necessary infrastructure. Also, the games have been very successful in defying the general public’s stereotype that physically challenged people are incapable or incompetent at work; stimulating more employment of people with disabilities.
Despite efforts to promote the Paralympics, the IPC is apparently still suffering from lack of recognition and tight budget problems. “It is a well-known fact that the Paralympics is suffering from a short budget, but when you think about it, it is obvious why the big companies are not willing to support the Paralympics. Sponsoring the Paralympics is about giving donations,” said Han Cheol Ho, CEO of Millet clothing company and leader of the Korean delegation at the Sochi Paralympics.
He further added that Korea should join other developed countries' efforts to help out the disabled society. “In order for our country to become a developed country, we should start to make a culture for the handicapped. Having a lot of wealth does not make our country a developed country. It takes time,” said Han.
Countless men and women who used to be hopeless because of their physical challenges have experienced incredible changes in their lives by participating in the Paralympics. Seo Vo Ra Mi (28, cross-country skier) a waist-down paralysis, says the Paralympics has given her a lot of meaningful moments. “It’s another challenge for me. It is amazing. To be honest, after being on the wheel chair, I realized how much discomforts are out there towards the disabled in society. However, the Paralympics is a stage for me, which makes me more confident of myself in front of the public,” said Seo.
For some, the competition means everything. Jung Seung Hwan (29, sledge ice hockey) says he has been preparing for the game for ten years with his team and Sochi is the culmination of his decade-long devotion to his craft. “I’ve been training so hard for the Olympics for ten years. The Olympics is everything to me,” said Jung, with a firm determination to win a medal this time. Jung is not alone in his ardent passion and doggedness for excellence. After all, the Paralympics is undoubtedly the greatest source of motivation and hope for athletes with physical challenges.
The 2014 Sochi Olympics ended passing its Olympic torch onto the next 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. However, the light has not been put out yet in Sochi. Shortly, the Paralympics will start in hopes that the same Olympic fever would continue on for the Paralympics game. 40 international partners have worked assiduously on promoting the Paralympics, hoping it could end social discrimination against the disabled. Just like the Olympics, every paralympian has been training hard for years just for the day. Though it still needs a lot of recognition and support of the public, the Paralympics will always deliver the message of sportsmanship; that “Sports does not care who you are.”
▲ The 2014 Sochi Paralympics national team members are taking commemorative photograph wishing for Korean team’s victory. Photographed by Kang Hyun Ji