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The Bigger Prize

Reprinted from PN January 2001

The 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, were the Games that looked us in the eye.

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My youngest two children are on the back patio right now, emulating their heroes. The 3-year-old is riding a bicycle with training wheels. The 5-year-old is on a tricycle. They're playing wheelchair basketball.

I could have spent years trying to teach my children about disabled people, about emphasizing the second word over the first. Instead, the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games arrived in town and taught them more than I ever could. It taught them to ignore the first word altogether. It taught them what people can doinstead of can't.

But a funny thing happened on the way to teaching my children. Along the way, the Paralympians taught me.

They taught me without my knowledge, the way it usually happens when you learn from life experience instead of theory. They taught me day by day, but the realization only hit me a couple of days ago while I was talking with a friend on the news desk.

"I didn't know you could use the word 'runners,'" she said.

What's that?

"'Runners,'" she said. "I didn't know you could call the people racing in wheelchairs 'runners.'"

I didn't know you could, either. I guess I hadn't thought about it.

"Oh, you had it in your story," she said. "I thought you'd done it on purpose."

No, apparently I did it because I no longer really think about the Paralympians' wheelchairs. In fact, after being immersed in the Games, I rarely think about their legs or their arms or their handsor any disability.

My memories of the Games are going to be the eyes: the joyous, dancing eyes of Japan's Tsuchida Wakako; the warm, bright eyes of Palestine's Fidaa Mardawi; and on and on.

My mind drifts back to one of my first Paralympic stories, about four months ago. I was interviewing veteran Canadian racer Rick Reelie, and maybe halfway through the interview asked about the injury that left him in his wheelchair.

"Aw, you're not writing a story about that, are you?" he asked, discouraged for just a moment.

No, I certainly wasn't. But for the readers, it was part of the story. For him, I now see more clearly, it was part of life.

As the Games rolled on, I suddenly found myself pausing in the midst of stories and thinking, Wait, did he have one leg, two legs - no legs? I no longer was noticing, no longer could picture much of anything beyond the eyes. Finally, one day, I sat down to write a story about a woman in a wheelchair and realized that besides not noticing anything about her legs, I couldn't even say how or when in her life she was injured.

In contrast, whenever I sat back, it all seemed unimaginable. High up in the stands or sitting before a television, the eye still naturally focused on a person's injury. Why the inconsistency?

I know now. It has to do with distance. Keep enough distance, and you see a missing limb, a muscular problem, something that just doesn't fit the sum of the parts as you've grown to know them. Get close enough to see a person, talk with a person, know a person?in other words, the normal parameters of human contact?and the rest of it simply disappears from relevance.

So, as the Closing Ceremony looms, as the Paralympians prepare to leave town, they leave behind two able-bodied little boys imitating the athletes who have become their latest heroes. As the Paralympians prepare to leave town, they leave behind a father who truly understands that their injuries are not the stories of their lives.

The Olympic Games were an experience, but the Paralympic Games were a gift. The Olympic Games gave us memories, but the Paralympic Games gave us lessons in life. They are the bigger prize.

Thank you, Paralympians. You made us better human beings. There is no greater gift.



Ron Sutton is a newspaper writer in Australia. This article appeared on Sydney 2000, the Official Site of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games (19962000 SOCOG and IBM).

Look for complete coverage of the 2000 Paralympic Games in the December 2000 issue of our sister publication, SPORTS 'N SPOKES; for a preview, visit www.sportsnspokes.com.

 

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The Bigger Prize

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