No sooner had we settled into our seats then – SMASH – the track was twisted into a chaotic scene of wheelchairs and riders all over the ground. Flying at about 30km per hour, a slight miscalculation by a single athlete resulted in five of them being taken out of the race in a single shot. I exclaim to no one in particular, “Holy crap, these wheelchair races are a cross between speed skating and NASCAR. The athletes don’t need bicycle helmets; they need body armour.”
The first run of the men’s T54 800 metre final only had three racers in a field of eight cross the finish line. The results were (pun intended) wiped out and the race was done over again, with Canadians Alex Dupont and Joshua Cassidy finishing gold and silver in what proved to be a highlight of the evening’s events.
Yet sports fans in our city seem overwhelmingly apathetic to these thrilling acts of athleticism here at the Parapan Am Games. Race after race, event after event, performed to spectators given permission to take just about any seat because the York University venue had ten times more empty seats than butts placed in them.
For just a moment, remove the ‘Para’ portion of Parapan and picture the power and skill it takes a pair of runners tied together to run world class times completely in sync.
Terezinha Guihermina of Brazil has done just that here this week. On August 11th, her performance was only two seconds off the pace that won Andre DeGrasse the gold medal in the men’s 100 metre event at the Pan Am Games. Oh, I forgot to mention, she is blind and runs with the help of a guide. This gets me thinking; these are not the feats of an athlete who should have an asterisk beside her name to denote a disability. Her only limitation is the one we choose to put in front of her by not recognizing the incredible scale of her accomplishments on the same level as her peers in the Pan American Games.
Essentially, Guihermina is a rock star without an audience, holding world records in the 100, 200 and 400 metre women’s T11. She ran last night in the 400m semi-final to a crowd that was diminishing as the night went on. Sure, there is a good contingent of enthusiastic fans, but honestly, when orange shirt volunteers are shouting encouragement more loudly than paying spectators, we need to question our perception of the Parapan Am Games.
For my part, I see world class athletes competing in events unique to their gifts… which isn’t any different than able bodied athletes taking part in their sports. So, perhaps it is time to incorporate the ‘para’ athletes into the full spectacle of the Pan Am and Olympic games. Why not have the T 54 100 metre wheelchair final run at the same event as the 100 metre sprint final.
Last night, I heard “O Canada” played twice and watched our athletes receive a bunch of medals. It was an inspirational night, not because I saw people with disabilities overcoming adversity, but rather, I saw elite athletes performing feats I couldn’t imagine doing in my wildest dreams.