Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Paralympics, Sports and MS

Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play. ~Mike Singletary

Exercise is recommended for MSers to help maintain their abilities and general health. However, most MSers have to limit their workouts to fit their abilities. You didn’t think your MS diagnosis meant the end of your active sports life, did you? Here is the story of others who may have thought so, but learned life can still be active and even thrilling.

Some WWII veterans thought their lives were effectively over because of injuries that occurred during the war, but their government would not let them give up. They had been trained, they were strong, and there was so much life left to live. Let’s see what they did to improve their quality of life and to make life worth living.

The British government, after World War II, asked Dr. Ludwig Guttmann to work with spinal injuries in war veterans. Guttmann founded the Stoke Mandeville Hospital. To further veteran's therapy, the doctor used sport for rehabilitation, and in 1948 their therapy turned to sport which turned to competitive games. At first there were 14 men and two women competing annually in the game of archery.

Over the years, there were changes to these games as they expanded offering opportunities to many people with disabilities. They were demonstrating to the world that having a disability does not necessarily put an end to their productive life.

Following are some highlights of Dr. Guttmann’s sports therapy and how it evolved:

  • Injured Dutch servicemen joined in the games by 1952, making this activity truly an international competition for the first time.
  • By 1960, these games had been opened to athletes with disabilities who were not military.
  • That year the competition was hosted in Rome following the Olympics, creating the first Paralympic games.
  • Rome hosted the Paralympics after the Olympics; however, those facilities were not wheelchair accessible (surprise!) and military personnel assisted athletes between venues.
  • In 1960 there were 400 athletes competing from 23 countries.
  • In 1976 athletes, were no longer limited to wheelchairs.
  • Improvements were made in designing and constructing facilities for wheelchairs as well as more types of disabilities.
  • By 2004, there were almost 4,000 athletes and by that time there were even more than 3,000 media representatives, meaning the world was taking interest.
  • Beijing hosted over 3,900 athletes from 148 countries
  • In 2010, Summer Paralympics offered 420 events in 20 sports. Winter Olympics had 64 events in 5 sports.

“Para” represented paraplegic at first, but as athletes with more and different disabilities were included, the meaning of the prefix was changed to the Greek “parallel” for “side-by-side.” By then it represented the fact that Paralympics could be considered as equal to the Olympics. These two sports events developed and were scheduled “side by side,” Paralympics after the Olympics, often in the same venue.

Paralympic games, like the Olympics, are now a multi-sport event comprised of international multi-sport events including world-class athletes with disabilities.

Paralympians have been searching for funding equal to Olympians, as well as opening the games to more sports such as track and field. There are even talks about Paralympians once again being eligible to try out and participate in the Olympics, athletes with disabilities competing head-to-head against athletes with no disabilities - athlete vs. athlete and equal opportunity.

The games began as rehabilitation for athletes with spinal cord injuries, soon adding mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, and Cerebral Palsy. There was always a category called others so athletes with other disabilities, such as multiple sclerosis, can also participate. Today, people with all types of disabilities either play, or are interested in playing, in the Paralympic games. In fact, MSers have participated and with an admirable degree of success.

Of course I do not know about all of the MS Paralympians, but I do know some. In 2008, equestrian team Great Britain at the Paralympics in Beijing included MSers, both Simon Laurens and Anne Durham. Simon Laurens is in the top 10% of the 100 paralympic riders in the UK. Great Britain has acquired more medals for Paralympic dressage in the last 25 years than any other sport. Let me repeat that: Great Britain has acquired more medals for Paralympic dressage in the last 25 years than any other sport.

One rider is a team member for the fifth time.
Anne Dunham, who is in the most disabled category of Para Dressage riders, has won a team gold as well as an individual bronze. In this category, medals recognize both world class athletes and horses.

Equestrian events are perfect for MSers since hippotherapy is such a good therapy for us. However, there are so many more sports that work for us, too.

Dr. Guttmann’s initial idea was to use sports as a rehabilitation tool. Sports are a way to keep in shape, to feel better about ourselves, and to remind us we are still capable of doing all kinds of things. We are still capable of being thrilled.

Notes and Links:
Wikipedia on Paralympics
History of Paralympic Games