By Joyce Murray
In just two months, the Olympic torch will make its triumphant arrival in Vancouver to mark the opening of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games. Canadians across the country feel the buzz of excitement with the culmination of years of hard work and dreams, of athletes and Games organizers alike.
As the Liberal Party of Canada critic for amateur sport and the Olympics, it is my responsibility to help ensure the success of the Games and our athletes, and to hold the federal government to account for their part in supporting the Games. One way I do this is by listening to the voices of those who feel they have been unfairly sidelined by the federal government in the run up to the Olympics.
Two weeks ago, I publicly asked the Conservative government to explain just why they waited until just several weeks prior to the opening of the Games to request proposals for constructing Canada’s $9-million Olympic pavilion. The unfortunate result of the impossibly short bid window (two weeks), and last-minute award, is that many quality Canadian firms simply declined to bid on the work. Several of these companies pointed out that the bid process seemed to be custom-designed to exclude them. Consequently, an American company from Chicago has secured the right to design, build, furnish, and staff Canada’s pavilion, to showcase Canada’s uniqueness to the world at Canada’s Games. Let’s hope they do a great job, and let’s be clear that Canadians expect government contracts of this sort to be fair and open enough for Canadian companies to participate.
In my capacity as the Liberal representative for Vancouver’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, my personal priority is to raise awareness of the Paralympics. Paralympian athletes rank among the true heroes of the Olympic Movement. Rather than being resigned to a life of physical limitation, these extraordinary individuals embrace the chance to excel.
In meetings with a broad range of representatives from the disabled sporting community, I am hearing about the triumphs and the challenges. Unsurprisingly, advocates of the Paralympian athletes such as Senator Joyce Fairburn point to funding inadequacy to explain the Paralympic Games’ lower profile. Financial support is stretched, while Paralympians’ extra needs for specialized equipment and assistance is an ongoing reality.
Surprisingly, the number of new athletes participating in Paralympic sports appears to be stagnating at a time when the number of disabled Canadians is increasing. Daniel Wesley, a 12-time Paralympic medallist, worries that this lack of momentum will affect the vitality of Canada’s Paralympic movement, and in turn undermine public support and funding. Worse yet, many disabled young people are missing out on the wealth of personal opportunities they could discover by participating in sport, teamwork, and performance.
Canada’s National Sport Organization model is designed to coordinate federal government support and funding for various sports to maximize effectiveness—a laudable goal. According to Kathy Newman, executive director of the B.C. Wheelchair Sports Association, consistent ongoing partnerships between Paralympic sport organizations and grassroots disability sport organizations will help overcome barriers to participation: “We all need to work together to recruit and develop Paralympians so their unique abilities and needs can be met. One size fits all will not work.” Henry Storgaard, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, is helping to improve federal-provincial coordination of recruitment and support for disabled athletes, and increase awareness of the athletes’ accomplishments.
The exciting lead-up to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games is a great time to appreciate how far the Paralympic movement has come in just a few decades, and to think about ways it can develop even further. The Paralympics allow disabled people to overcome adversity, challenge themselves, inspire others, and be recognized as the world-class athletes and outstanding individuals they are. As one Paralympic coach put it: “for me to lace up and go for a run just takes will power. For a disabled person there are huge logistical hurdles to fitness. They can take nothing for granted, and have embraced sport despite the challenges. That’s what makes Paralympians’ triumphs so incredibly meaningful.”
This January, I plan to hold a round-table discussion in Vancouver to hear from Paralympians themselves about the Paralympics. Various groups with an interest in disabled sport will be asked to participate. Let’s work together toward the goal of greater awareness, equality, and resources for disabled athletes and Paralympians.
Joyce Murray is the Liberal critic for amateur sport and the Vancouver Olympics, and the MP for Vancouver Quadra.