A Bold Games Leap Forward
In her lifetime as a competitor and advocate, Elisabeth Walker-Young has witnessed the Paralympic Movement grow from a largely grassroots undertaking into a major international sporting event that has captured the imagination of the world, particularly last summer at the London 2012 Games.
Now in her mid-30s, the four-time Paralympic champion swimmer says Canada has a chance to once again propel the movement forward by putting on the best—and largest—Parapan American Games ever held and the first the Great White North has hosted when 28 countries and 1,500 athletes are expected to participate in 15 sports in 2015.
“It’s gotten huge – 18 more countries competed in London than in Beijing,” says Walker-Young, who was Team Canada’s assistant chef de mission for the London 2012 Paralympic Summer Games. “The quality and calibre of the sports is also unsurpassed in the last two Games.
“But the Paralympic Games aren’t just about sport,” she continued. “They’re a great jumping-off point for creating social and cultural equality. Many of the countries now fielding Paralympian teams lag behind Canada in recognizing the rights of persons with disabilities and in promoting inclusivity, so there’s still a lot of work to be done on that front worldwide.”
Almost 40 years ago, Canada laid the groundwork for changing the viewpoint here at home and internationally towards this burgeoning civil rights and sports movement when Toronto hosted the 1976 Olympiad for the Physically Disabled, the fifth Paralympic Games to be held. For the first time, athletes with a visual impairment and amputee athletes competed on the world stage.
Only eight years earlier, Canada sent its first Paralympic team to the Summer Games in Tel Aviv, thanks in large part to Dr. Robert F. Jackson, the founding father of the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC).
As Dr. Robert W. Jackson and Alix Frederickson wrote in a 1979 article in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, “The Toronto Games will probably be remembered as the turning point in the emergence of sports for the disabled from a purely rehabilitation measure to a true sporting event in its own right.”
Canadian athletes have excelled in Paralympic sports ever since, thanks to federal funding devoted to developing sport opportunities for people with a disability.
That legacy helped spur Walker-Young’s own involvement in the movement.
“There’s a history here from 1976 that a lot of people don’t know about. I had my start at Variety Village in Toronto (renowned for its work with young people with disabilities). That was the first place I ever heard of the Paralympics,” said Walker-Young, who spoke to TO2015 officials and staff earlier this fall about what should be done to ensure Paralympians and all persons with disabilities are warmly welcomed at the Games.
But interestingly the growing success of the Paralympic Movement has imperiled Canada’s long-held position among the top countries in the world producing and supporting champion Paralympians.
“Canada was once the power nation—in the top three countries. We can’t lose that,” Walker-Young said.
In London, Canada had 145 athletes competing in 15 of the 20 Paralympic sports. Although the team failed to meet its goal of being in the top eight of gold-medal winning nations, Walker-Young said important changes were made before London that will pay off at the TORONTO 2015 Parapan Am Games and at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Chief among them was the move to centralize teams to a single location for training purposes, such as the women’s wheelchair basketball team, which is now based at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
“It’s going to be phenomenal in Toronto in 2015,” she says, pointing to these changes, as well as the number of regional records recently broken by rookie Canadian athletes. “It’s a huge commitment for athletes to move across the country to train but it’s well worth it for Canada to field a strong team.
“The women’s sitting volleyball team . . . it’s their goal to compete here. They didn’t make the cut for London so they’re focused now on Toronto and Brazil after that. They’re so excited the Parapan Am Games are going to be on home soil here in Toronto.”