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No Dissing Their Abilities

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Issue: 29 Section: Sports Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: disability

May 10, 2005

No Dissing Their Abilities

Canadian athletes compete internationally at the 22nd Défi Sportif

by Chris Tucker

goalball_web.jpg I hear a save in the making; a canadian goalballer in action. photo: Benoît Pelosse
Covered in hockey equipment and sporting modified ski goggles painted opaque in the colors of the Canadian flag, six men throw themselves onto the gym floor in a desperate attempt to thwart the progress of the oncoming jingling ball. A Canadian team member sprawls out--fully extended, he barely manages to deflect the ball away from his goal line. His body covers a full seven feet, yet he only manages to divert the ball with the last measure of his finger tips.

The small crowd does not cheer. Total silence is maintained in the gym. This is goalball, a game where absolute silence from the fans and players alike is not only expected, but intrinsic to the game. Relying on sound rather than sight (all participants wear masks to level the aural playing field of differences in seeing ability), goalball is a game where the sight-impaired hold a competitive advantage over their sight-oriented sisters and brothers, due to their more highly developed use of sound for spatial orientation.

Goalball is one of many such sports that were part of last week's Défi Sportif, held in Montréal. From April 27th to May Ist, 2700 athletes and over 500 volunteers gathered for the 22nd edition of the annual event. In locations scattered throughout the city, athletes with a variety of disabilities raced, battled, and competed in 15 sports.

Défi Sportif is the only competition in Canada that encourages athletes of all disabilities to participate. Whether the disability be visual, auditory, intellectual, psychiatric or physical the students, developing or paralympic athletes face off for gold. They come mostly from Québec, although the rest of Canada is well represented along with combatants from 8 other countries.

The badminton, basketball and volleyball played at the Défi Sportif are similar to their mainstream counterparts, slightly altered to allow for each respective disability. Sports such as goalball, tandem cycling and wheelchair fencing, however, are quite unique in their development of rules and competitive dynamics. In many cases, it is the latter category of sport that draws the fascination of spectators.

The previously mentioned Goalball pushes auditory senses to the max. Players sport masks that discourage even traces of light from influencing them. The goal is to roll the ball past the other team's goal line while blocking it from crossing one's own. The players extend themselves across the floor, chasing a ball containing small bells that signal its location. Players rely on textured tape on the ground to determine their location in relation to goal lines and boundaries. Twenty minutes after the ball sings its first shot, the team with the most goals wins.

Tandem cycling along with hand cycling and cycling make up the bicycle sports. Cyclists are ranked according to their disability and face fierce competition on traditional bikes, three wheeled bikes or tandems. The tandem cycle is unique in that it involves two racers: a visual impaired athlete who occupies the rear seat and a pilot who steers the duo. The pilot is the only non-disabled athlete who competes for a medal at the games.

Wheelchair fencing also attracts its share of attention. As with traditional fencing, the aim is to strike a hit upon the opponent's body with either an épée, saber, or foil. What separates it from its upright counterpart is that the target area for these athletes is limited to area from the waist up. The wheelchair is tethered in place within striking distance of the opponent. The anchored chair allows for a full range of upper body movement but eliminates any toppling of the fencer. The close proximity leads to an intense and very fast paced clash.

These sports, as with all others in the games have come a long way since organized disabled sports competitons got their start nearly sixty years ago, when disabled veterans of the Second World War were encouraged to compete in wheelchair sports to aid with their mental and physical rehabilitation. Today, disabled sports have a more proactive role. Social values and the promotion of a positive self image are at the forefront and for some, overshadow mere competition. For many, being perceived as a serious athlete and breaking out of the largely negative connotations of "disabled" are as important as winning.

Each year of Défi Sportif has seen an increase in the number of athletes, a deepening of the talent pool, and a growth in media coverage and corporate funding. With hopes of becoming the largest disabled games in the world, the Défi Sportif has received a boost with the support of athletes such as Chantal Peticlerc. The winner of five gold medals in Athens in wheelchair racing, Peticlerc is a well known paralympic athlete from Québec.

Peticlerc and other recognizable athletes competing in these games help draw crowds, media, and funding that are facilitating the advancement of all disabled sports. Apart from its growth, the Défi Sportif's real achievement continues to be in giving these athletes from around the world the spotlight that they deserve. The dedication and years of training become the satisfaction that every competitor feels when they step onto center stage in Montréal to show us just what they are capable of.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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