Last week I was out at the Adapt gym here in Portland talking to a reporter for a local newspaper about the US Wheelchair Rugby Team’s preparation for London. He was a nice enough fellow but not particularly prepared for the interview and kept asking me to explain why the Paralympics were a bigger deal than other major competitions I’ve been to, like the World Championships. A valid question, I suppose, but anyone who follows sport understands the mythological draw of the Olympics and for disabled sport the Paralympics is no different. I consider myself wider-ranging than the average American sports fan, tuning in to things like tennis, cycling, and Ninja Warrior (yes, I consider this a sport even if its initial draws were the exquisite Japanese shouting and a half-naked old man with an Octopus draped around his shoulders), but I couldn’t tell you anything about what happened at last year’s swimming or track and field world championships (except that Usain Bolt false started his way out of the competition). It’s not that I’m disinterested, it’s just that in America you’d have to go out of your way to watch these events. Not so the Olympics, which you would be hard pressed to miss even if you wanted to. For the casual fan (the vast majority), the Olympics are all that matters. Will anyone care that Usain Bolt flubbed a chance at a World Championships Gold if he wins a few more Gold Medals in London? Such is the media saturation of the Olympics that if Bolt false starts his way out of the 100m final this year I bet even the folks from my English Lit. class will have heard about it.
In my peculiar sporting world the difference between the Paralympics and every other competition are even more pronounced. Not that there’s near as much attention as the Olympics (not even close) but for every other competition I’m involved in there’s approximately zero attention outside of Wheelchair Rugby’s insular little world. Which is why I found myself talking with a reporter who didn’t appear to know much about sport, suddenly I’m headline (or page 7 human interest story) material: Two Local Boys Going to London! Apparently it’s kind of a big deal. Everything about the Paralympics is bigger and shinier by several orders of magnitude than any other competition we play in. This year’s games are estimated to include 4,200 athletes from 165 countries, making it the second largest sporting event in the world behind…that’s right, the Olympics. At our next biggest competition, World’s Championships, there’s around 140 athletes from 12 countries. In the Gold Medal game in Beijing we played in front of some 8,000 people. In London, the Wheelchair Rugby final will be held in an arena that seats 10,000 and has been sold out for months. It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to play in front of a crowd this size, especially when you’re used to playing in front of a few dozen people. It’s impossible not to feed off the energy. Having already been to a Paralympics and knowing what’s coming makes me even more excited than the first time around. Motivation comes pretty easy when you know what your playing for.
Are the Paralympics different than any other competition I’ve played in? Yeah, just a little.