By Dan Plouffe
As Rick Hansen wheels his way into Ottawa Wednesday during the 25th anniversary relay of his original Man in Motion World Tour, the six-time Paralympic medalist is taking time to reflect on the evolution of sport for athletes with a disability over a quarter-century in the place that was the centre of much of that progress.
With numerous Canadian sports bodies based in the nation’s capital, Ottawa certainly played a big role in benchmark developments in the Paralympic movement such as seeing Chantal Pettitclerc recognized as Canadian athlete of the year and the Olympic and Paralympic Games branded under one title.
“The Olympic and Paralympic Games that were held in Vancouver was a distant dream back on the tour,” notes Hansen, who appeared in the House of Commons Tuesday before returning to the 7,000-participant relay that makes its way through Ottawa Oct. 26-28. “That’s a reflection of progress that’s worthy of celebration.”
There is still a long way to go in the development of sport for athletes with a disability, Hansen adds. In the 54-year-old’s view, many team sports still need to be more inclusive, community clubs can do a better job of integrating disability sport into their programs, and organizations and governing bodies need to continue talking about inclusion and integration, and realize the efficiencies available through shared use of facilities, coaching and technical areas.
And then there’s the biggie – holding the Olympic and Paralympic Games at the same time.
“It’s better than having it a couple weeks later when everyone’s disappeared and they’re starting to focus on other priorities,” Hansen maintains.
But despite ongoing challenges, “we’ve accomplished things and there’s successes worthy of celebration,” he emphasizes.
Since it was his first wheelchair sport, Hansen particularly reveled in the success of the Canadian wheelchair basketball teams, who won consecutive world women’s championships for over a decade and were almost as strong in men’s play during the ’90s.
There’s also the explosion of sledge hockey in Canada. In his 1987 book, Hansen wrote about a visit he made to an Ottawa rink during the Man in Motion tour “where the kids were playing sledge hockey, a great winter sport for disabled youngsters.”
Sledge hockey is no longer simply a fun passtime for kids – it is now a major international sport with fully-carded national team athletes that attracted sold out throughout the Vancouver Paralympics.
“It still has its roots in recreation and rehabilitation, as it should,” reflects the three-time Paralympic gold medalist on the track and in marathon from the 1980 and 1984 Games. “But sports for athletes with disabilities has also emerged into a high-performance elite model that comparable to able-bodied sport.
“I think that the sport community in general is moving away from the patronizing generalized statements of ‘marvelous and inspirational’ to differentiating and knowing – is this a competitive sport, does it have depth, and has it evolved in terms of the level of training and the approach to elite level performance and competition?
“Those sports within the Paralympic movement that meet those criteria, and those athletes are being recognized just as athletes.
“I think that’s probably the greatest tribute to progress to the sporting movement. Sport is reflecting our values – it’s a mirror for how we view society and life.”
Read related story: Hansen returns to Ottawa 25 years after Man in Motion tour
By Dan Plouffe