Aug. 14, 1995
Aug. 14, 1995

Table of Contents
Aug. 14, 1995

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They exist in a strange purgatory, neither damned by their
physical limitations nor delivered by their fierce spirit. They
have been condemned to sport's netherworld, where most of the
attention they do get is unflattering and maddening. "A Face
in the Crowd!" says one athlete, dismayed after all these years
by some misguided attempt at recognition. "I won the Boston
Marathon five times! I am not a Face in the Crowd!" It has been
a frustrating limbo. Disabled athletes descend on an important
meet, their intensity as terrible as that of any able-bodied
sportsman, and they evoke more sympathy than wonder. The
confluence of medi-vans at the staging area, let's face it,
more likely suggests an air disaster to the average fan than
the National Wheelchair & Amputee Championships.

This is an article from the Aug. 14, 1995 issue Original Layout

But things change, even in sports. Disabled athletes, frustrated
by lack of opportunity and any serious consideration of what
they are about, have wrought tremendous changes in attitude
toward the things they do. Just look at their movement, not
quite militant but very active, to see what they've achieved in
recent years: Short of going on strike, they have pretty much
done everything they can to duplicate the big-time sports
experience. They've earned money, exposure and increasing clout.
They've engaged in in-house squabbling, litigation and feuds.
They've even cheated. It's not major league stuff, not yet. But
for a movement that has long suffered the patronizing attitudes
of sports fans, at least in the U.S., this new and feisty
personality represents progress. Mainstream? Probably not, but
you know they're on the right track when a call to one of the
elite athletes, a world-record sprinter who happens to have
neither hands nor feet, is returned five days later. By his agent.

This coming of age has been slow in coming, but officials and
athletes expect next year's Paralympics, held 12 days after the
1996 Games in Atlanta, to announce an explosion in levels of
participation and competition among athletes with disabilities.
They believe that performances on such a grand stage will help
dispel the notion--for the four fifths of the U.S. population
that is not disabled--that these sports are an extended rehab
program for damaged people or just high-level recreation that
might be "inspirational" to the rest of us. Disabled athletes
hope that what they do will be revealed as sport: the kind of
rigorous and cutthroat activity that fans pay to watch, that
kids want to try.

"These are not the games where everybody gets a medal," says
veteran wheelchair road racer Jim Knaub, almost sneering in
reference to the feel-good Special Olympics. And these are no
longer athletes who beam at the mention of their "courage." If
Paralympic sports--divided into the blind, amputees,
cerebral-palsy sufferers, paraplegics, quadraplegics, dwarfs and
those with various other disabilities--were once informed by an
undercurrent of sympathy, they are much less so now. Of course,
it is still no big trick to pick out an athlete who has suffered
some horrific calamity or medical condition, detail the work
required to overcome it and end up with a tale of heroism. And,
let's face it, it often is inspirational compared with the
back-rehab story of, oh, Darryl Strawberry. But these days
disabled athletes bristle at the I-word. In June, at the
National Wheelchair & Amputee Championships in Boston, a
one-legged guy named Shawn Brown set an unofficial world record
in the discus (50.13 meters) but would talk about it only on one
condition. "Is this going to be a sports story?" he asked. "I
don't do human interest."

These people do sports and want to be taken seriously for it.
Many of them, you find, were elite athletes before being
disabled (not a few, it turns out, were clipped by drunk drivers
and hit-and-run artists while they were in training), and they
intend to remain at that level no matter what parts are missing
or simply not operating. That is more achievable these days
because of better education at the rehab stage, better
technology and a modest level of enlightenment among the
nondisabled (the PC term of the moment). Excelling as a disabled
athlete is still difficult--most students don't have to sue to
play high school sports--and expensive. The sleek three-wheeled
racing chairs made by Top End can cost almost $4,000, a
prosthesis including a Flex-Foot might go for $10,000, and
Paralympic training and travel can cost a U.S. athlete thousands
of dollars a year. But as the pool of talent deepens and
standards keep getting higher, it becomes impossible to dismiss
this movement as some kind of Olympic sideshow.

There is now an ESPN program, Break Away, that features sports
for the disabled. There are magazines, from Sports 'n Spokes to
Palaestra, that treat disabled athletes as authentic sports
figures. There is a circuit for wheelchair road racers that
offers the best of them a decent living ($30,000 or more
annually). There is corporate sponsorship, with Home Depot
kicking in $4 million to the Paralympics and other companies
such as IBM, United Airlines and Coca-Cola contributing to
disabled sports. There is industry involvement as well;
representatives of Flex-Foot and Top End mill about at events in
ways that recall Nike salesmen. And, of course, there is the
national imperative guaranteed by the '96 Paralympics, which
will present 4,000 athletes from more than 115 countries in a
dizzying array of events, all of them categorized by nature and
degree of disability, so that there might be 15 different
versions of the 100-meter dash.

Maybe a better way to illustrate the arrival of sports for the
disabled is to look at a single event, say wheelchair racing. In
1979 George Murray broke the five-minute barrier with a 4:59.7
mile. Only six years later he broke the four-minute barrier, and
today the world record, held by Jeff Adams, is 3:30.2. In the
marathon, meanwhile, a great time nowadays is 90-some minutes.
Credit for a lot of this progress goes to the development of the
racing chair. Andy Fleming, president of the Atlanta Paralympic
Organizing Committee (APOC), says that when athletes moved from
clunky "everydays" to racing chairs, everything changed. "Racing
became more enjoyable, more people got involved. And with
increasing competition, they started training harder. Now you
can't compete with the elite racers without the commitment to
the sport that Olympians would make."

Really, the distinction between wheelchair racers and Olympians
is fading at these high levels. Guys like Scot Hollonbeck and
James Briggs, who travel the country bagging $2,000 and $4,000
first-place prizes, mirror the big able-bodied track stars in
their conditioning, demeanor and total absorption in their
sport. The wheelchair competition is now so keen that only the
driven are rewarded. Consider Hollonbeck, 25, whose progress to
the top level is fairly representative of the modern elite
competitor's. He was an all-around athlete when he was hit by a
car in 1984, but he knew he would be a wheelchair athlete as
soon as he awoke from the surgery that stabilized his spinal
column. "I looked up, and on TV there was somebody winning a
gold medal in a wheelchair. I said right then, 'I'd like to try
that.'" And he did, racing on his high school track team,
although he didn't always receive lots of encouragement. Several
times opposing teams refused to let him race against their
runners, and his own team had to threaten to pull out of events
to force opponents' hands. But eventually Hollonbeck's high
school bailed out on him, and his family was forced to take the
issue to federal court.

Of course by the time the suit was resolved, in Hollonbeck's
favor, he was long gone. Lucky for him, there was someplace to
go, a place Briggs calls "the mecca" for athletes with
disabilities. At the University of Illinois, where wheelchair
racing and basketball are thriving sports thanks to the school's
Division of Rehabilitation Education Services (DRES), both
Briggs, now 23, and Hollonbeck got the kind of coaching and
support that their able-bodied brethren take for granted. Most
college athletes are not this fortunate; Illinois and
Texas-Arlington are among the few universities that recruit
disabled athletes. (Small scholarships are available at
Illinois.) And at Illinois, where professor Timothy Nugent
introduced wheelchair basketball in 1948, the sensibility has
been rigorous and unforgiving. "We're looking forward to the day
when people see the accomplishment and don't get misty-eyed,"
Brad Hedrick of DRES has said. "We want that kind of
acknowledgment. Not the acknowledgment of the disability.
Acknowledgment of athleticism."

Although the Illinois approach is slowly filtering through the
collegiate ranks, the school remains a kind of Colorado Springs
of disabled sports. Hollonbeck's experience there paid off. He
wasn't good enough to make the U.S. Paralympic team in 1988, but
he was by 1992, and he won three medals in Barcelona: two golds
(in the 4x400 meters and the 800) and a silver (1,500 meters).
And in Europe, where track and field is more highly regarded
than in the U.S., Hollonbeck found the same kind of adulation
that greets the able-bodied. "In Zurich there were 21,000 at a
race," he says. "I had to have security to get me out."

That's not a problem in this country. disabled athletes in the
U.S. are fortunate to take a path as direct as Hollonbeck's, or
to be rewarded as well. Linda Mastandrea, who has cerebral
palsy, says she spent "19 years knowing nothing" of
opportunities in sports. It wasn't until she landed at Illinois
that she even became aware of wheelchair sports. "I was scared
at first," she says. "I wasn't acquainted with these things. But
once I was convinced to try it, wow, it was like, look what I've
been missing!"

Mastandrea, who has gone on to set world records in the 200 and
400 meters, has not made a living out of racing and doesn't
expect to. Unlike some, she is not very encouraged by the pace
at which sports for the disabled are growing. The progress is
there in competition but not, she insists, in sponsorship or
interest. "People aren't getting it," she says. "There are 49
million of us [disabled]. If somebody said to you there's a
market of, say, 49 million women, would you ignore it?"

Officials in the disabled sports community marshal all kinds of
figures to advance this argument. Kirk Bauer, executive director
of Disabled Sports USA, a nonprofit organization, says the
disabled "represent $700 billion in total income; their
families, $1.25 trillion. That's a large consumer market."

Some heed the call. ITT Hartford, which is one of the nation's
leading sellers of group disability insurance, has provided
substantial support. Besides sponsoring Break Away, the ESPN
show, ITT Hartford backs a number of wheelchair races and has
supported volleyball, skiing and other sports for the disabled.
Marnie Goodman, a spokeswoman for ITT Hartford, says her
company's involvement is a long-term business decision. An
insurer would love to promote the idea that the disabled need
not sit at home watching Oprah and, not incidentally, eating up
huge disability checks when they could be out playing or, not
incidentally, working. This makes sense to other companies as
well. Time was, Goodman notes, when "companies provided support
out of a sense of charity or good citizenship. But now they're
doing it out of business sense. Corporate America ought to wake
up and smell the coffee. This is a huge market."

All this represents growth, but not surprisingly, there are
growing pains. The most sensational was the legal squabbling
over the use of Blaze, the '96 Paralympic mascot. APOC sued the
U.S. Olympic Committee for the right to use the mascot outside
the Paralympics and for possession of Blaze's merchandising
rights after Atlanta. That was resolved in April in favor of

Bickering over proper equipment also takes unique forms in
sports for the disabled. Tony Volpentest, who was born without
hands or feet, has, with the aid of prosthetics, established
world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints (11.63 and
23.07, respectively). A miracle. Yet Dennis Oehler, the previous
record holder, claims Volpentest's prosthetics are what's
miraculous. "You've got a guy 5'9", and he's suddenly jacked
himself up to 6'7"," Oehler says. (Actually, Volpentest's
artificial limbs raised his height to 6'2".) Naturally, there
are now rules regulating the length of prosthetics: They must be

Seeking an advantage through prosthetics is not cheating, but it
indicates a keenness of competition that can lead to cheating.
And while the Paralympic movement has so far not been troubled
by the kind of result-enhancing drug abuse that has blemished
Olympians, few doubt that future scandal is inevitable. In
Barcelona there were three drug-related disqualifications. One
of them, for U.S. wheelchair hoops player David Kiley, concerned
only a banned painkiller, but it cost the U.S. team a gold medal.

"I have no reason to think disabled athletes are any less
inclined to cheat than able-bodied athletes," Michael Riding,
medical officer of the International Paralympic Committee, has
said. "The temptations are exactly the same." Paralympian David
Efferson, a wheelchair basketball player, agrees: "Just because
we are disabled doesn't mean we're morally pure."

When scandal does hit, the rest of the world will find that the
disabled are remarkably inventive. Aside from the normal means
of doping, which the IPC intends to ferret out with the same
diligence as the IOC, the disabled have some fairly exotic means
of boosting performance. In fact, "boosting " is what one of the
oddest practices is called. It refers to forcing up blood
pressure, which some athletes with spinal injuries have been
known to do by deliberately injuring the paralyzed parts of
their bodies--hitting their toes with hammers, for example--and
then applying bandages so tightly that they act as tourniquets.
No one knows if this really works (it is rumored to produce an
improvement of up to 10% in performance), but it is considered
extremely risky and appropriate only for those who hunger to
compete in the stroke category.

There are, additionally, tales of athletes injecting alcohol
into their bladders so they can pass drug tests, weightlifters
hiding clean urine in catheters, and other athletes drinking
huge quantities of liquids and retaining urine to dangerous
levels to increase their heart rates. And, according to
Mastandrea, there are wheelchair racers who cover their legs in
plastic wrap to sweat off a few extra ounces. An edge is an edge.

A phenomenon stranger than that of disabled athletes trying to
heighten their abilities is that of the able-bodied trying to
restrict theirs. Aside from questions involving degrees of
disability--some partly sighted athletes are required to wear
blindfolds to play goalball, and some Paralympians were banned
in Barcelona for not meeting minimum standards of
disability--there is the more obvious dilemma posed when somebody
who is clearly able-bodied wants to adopt a disability to
compete in a sport. Some view this as a different kind of

For example, are wheelchair sports supposed to be only for
people who need wheelchairs, or can anybody play? The interest
of some athletes in this reverse mainstreaming may be testament
to the fun that wheelchair racing and basketball seem to
represent. Or perhaps it's just a violation of the sports'
mission. Certainly it's confusing when, in Great Britain,
wheelchair racer Daniel Sadler, 18, suddenly rises from his
chair to accept a medal. Sadler, like many "walkies" who compete
in wheelchairs, became interested in the sport because of a
disabled relative. He sees the wheelchair as a piece of sporting
equipment. There are athletes like Sadler in the U.S., too, most
likely because in many places it is difficult to round up the 10
to 12 wheelchair athletes necessary to make up a basketball
team. Walkies fill in.

Much more problematic is the threat of streamlining: the removal
of events and classifications that now cover a broad range of
disabilities. Disabled athletes admit that their games can get
unwieldy, sometimes ridiculously so, but they insist that the
movement remain flexible enough to touch everybody. Kurt
Collier, 29, who lost his left leg five years ago when he was
hit by a car while training for a triathlon, has combined his
love of sports and his occupation as a maker of artificial limbs
to become this country's top disabled pentathlete. But the IPC
wants to eliminate the pentathlon and, worse for Collier,
streamline the 400 meters, his next-best event, forcing Collier
to compete against arm amputees. He says he can't hold his own
against them. "There are pros and cons" to streamlining, he
says, "but you want to see everybody included."

Athletes are suspicious of streamlining, which the IPC promotes
on grounds that it will increase competition. "The benign
explanation," says Bauer of Disabled Sports USA, "is that this
is an effort to cut costs. We can understand that." Indeed,
disabled sports are encumbered by their need to incorporate so
many disabilities. It is probably fair to have 15 different
categories in the 100 meters. But is it sensible? There have
been Paralympic finals so specialized by degree of disability
that they had just three athletes. By the '92 Games, the number
of events had been cut by one third and the level of competition
greatly increased.

But the mixing of disability groups--a drive toward identifying
athletes by their ability to perform rather than the nature of
their disability--seems to many to threaten the spirit of
disabled athletics. They wonder if this movement masks the very
bias they're trying to overcome. "Another explanation," says
Bauer, "is that it's a move to eliminate the more severely
disabled." Maybe sponsors are nervous about the sight of so many
disabled people in one place. Maybe that's not pretty enough to
put on TV.

Most disabled athletes, like Oehler, believe that "if we
continue to squish classifications, we'll put the movement back
20 years." Then again, there has to be acknowledgment that
sports at this level are not, in the words of Bauer, "designed
to be for everyone." One wheelchair racer, Adams, has argued
that these sports are actually designed for a lot fewer people
than the disabled movement believes. In a 1993 story in the
Toronto Star, Adams was quoted as saying, "People don't realize
what the Olympics is. Less than [one-five thousandth of] a
percent of the world's population ever gets to go to the
Olympics. Why should you suddenly allow all kinds of people to
get in just because they happen to compete in an event where
most of the world is excluded?"

This is reverse patronization in the extreme, but at least it's
not based on aesthetic judgments about the appearance of the
disabled. Likely the debate about mainstreaming will produce a
compromise, reducing classifications in some events but
preserving differences in others. After all, flyweight boxers,
who might be said to be weight-disabled, are not asked to mix it
up with heavyweights. Certainly leg amputees cannot fairly
compete with arm amputees in running events. But should
above-knee amputees have to compete with below-knee amputees?

This controversy, this effort to define the movement, is
generating a lot of heat among both athletes and officials. It's
the kind of political issue that tends to intrude on the actual
achievements of the athletes, the kind of issue that gets messy.
Then again, what could legitimize the movement more than that?

Controversy? Squabbling? It beats human interest.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS [athlete's legs--one normal, one artificial--on starting blocks]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Speed and Strength Joyce Luncher, born without a right forearm and hand, is on the swim team at Catholic University (where she carries a 4.0 in biomedical engineering) and holds four U.S. records for disabled swimmers. Hugo Storer, who lost his right leg after he was hit by a car 12 years ago, is a two-time Paralympian and the holder of a U.S. disabled shot put record.COLOR PHOTO: DAEMMRICH PHOTOS INC. Highest Tech Advances in wheelchair design have helped disabled racers to lower their times significantly in everything from the sprints to the marathon, and refinements in ski equipment have enabled winter sportsmen such as California's Matt Geriak, who is now retired from competition, to race downhill and to maneuver around slalom gates ever faster. [wheelchair athletes at starting line]COLOR PHOTO: DEBRA DIETZ [see caption above--Matt Geriak]COLOR PHOTO: DAEMMRICH PHOTOS, INC. Going the Distance Brazilian discus champion Julio Gomes, 24, lost both of his legs in a truck accident when he was a child. He took up the javelin, shot put and discus eight years ago and worked his way to a bronze medal in the discus at the 1994 world championships in Berlin.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Maximum Effort Sarah Reinertsen strained to victory in a sprint at the National Wheelchair & Amputee Championships in June. Reinertsen, an above-knee amputee who has been disabled since birth, is a 20-year-old student at George Washington University. She set a 100-meter world record (19.38 seconds) at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, four years after setting a world mark in the 200 meters (43.39 seconds) at a meet in Canada.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Raising The Bar Since losing a leg after a fall at the age of nine, Al Mead, now 36, has challenged himself in all sports from baseball to hockey to track. He has held world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters and U.S. marks in the long and high jumps.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Embracing Victory Brian Frasure (left) congratulated Oehler after his triumph in a sprint at the National Wheelchair & Amputee Championships. Oehler, a Paralympic-record holder in the long jump (5.58 meters), was the first amputee to run the 100 in under 12 seconds; Frasure has thrown the javelin a U.S.-record 45.38 meters. [Brian Frasure hugging Dennis Oehler]