UPDATE: Paralympic athletes sue U.S. Olympic Committee for disability discrimination. July 28, 2003 --Paralympians Scot Hollonbeck, of Atlanta, Georgia, Tony Iniguez, of Aurora, Illinois, and Jacob Heilveil of Bothell, Washington, said in the lawsuit that the USOC violates federal law by providing benefits - such as elite training, coaching, performance incentives and health insurance - to Olympic athletes but denies those benefits to Paralympic athletes. READ STORY.

Bad Sports:
U.S. Olympic Committee thumbs nose at Paralympics

By Josie Byzek.

Sidebar: Vertical Integration

Josie Byzek writes frequently about disability rights.

Not a single Olympic dollar will go to Paralympic athletes for the upcoming games in 2000.

That was the word from U.S. Olympic Committee Executive Director Dick Schultz at a mid-April Colorado Springs meeting of the organization's Committee on Sports for the Disabled. No sponsorships would be pursued by the USOC for the Paralympics either, said Schultz. This will leave Paralympians effectively without funding for their events.

For amateur sports in America, all roads lead to the U. S. Olympic Committee. The 1978 Amateur Sports Act required the USOC to involve disabled athletes, but "it was so gray the Committee could always wiggle out of having to do anything," says five-time Paralympic medalist Scot Hollonbeck. A 1998 amendment now makes the requirement clear. Yet USOC support is "just not there for Paralympians," says the U.S. Disabled Athletes' Fund's Andy Fleming.

Lisa Lanier is an intense woman. Light brown hair frames a tanned, freckled face and determined, deep brown eyes. "Muscle-bound" is an understatement. Lanier's muscles come from hours of training as an amateur wheelchair fencer, an activity that takes up all the time left after working a full forty hours at Atlanta's independent living center. It takes virtually all her money, too.

Lanier, ranked second in the U. S., won two silver medals this year at the Nationals in Charlotte, North Carolina. She's competed in Italy, Germany, Spain and Canada. She hopes to make it to the Summer Games in Sydney next summer.

Like most world-class disabled athletes, Lanier can depend only on her own resources. "We work forty hours a week, train at night, max out our credit cards, stay on the verge of losing our jobs, using all our vacation time," she says. "I drive an hour every Monday and Wednesday to take a lesson, and a five-hour practice on Friday. I train on my own the other days. I have no social life. You have to be committed. It's 'do or die.' "

That's what is to be expected from a world-class athlete, says Lanier. Sacrifices are to be expected.

Unfairness is not. Yet internal documents confirm that of the USOC's millions earmarked to help athletes prepare for the upcoming Salt Lake City and Sydney Games, none is slated for "Paralympians" -- the name used by elite, Olympic-class disabled athletes like Lanier.

More than 80 percent of the $462 million budgeted for the 4 years leading up to next year's Olympic Games -- raised largely from high-powered sponsors like Coca Cola and General Motors -- goes to non-disabled athletes: in addition to training programs, the USOC allocates grants worth $30 million in direct athlete programs and $115 million in grants to member organizations, including direct support of athletes and teams in national and international competitions.

Paralympians get none of these grants. Nor are they eligible for any of the millions set aside for medalists. They're not eligible for health insurance, or to use the USOC's San Diego resident training services. Internal 1999 documents reveal the vast disparities in what's afforded Olympians and Paralympians in over 20 USOC programs and services.

Repeated requests to USOC management to explain financial disaparities went unanswered. Mark Shepherd, manager of the USOC's Disabled Sports Services, says the total 1997-2000 Paralympics budget totals less than $7.6 million.

Today all Paralympic fundraising and sponsorship agreements fall under direct control of the USOC. Yet since the group took control of the Paralympics in 1985, "no marks or symbols have been developed -- no flag, letterhead change or external acknowledgment of the National Paralympic Committee designation has occurred," says one document. "Acknowledgment goes virtually unknown by the outside world unless the USOC is approaching a sponsor" -- which won't be happening any time soon, to hear Schultz talk about it.

When the National Wheelchair Athletic Association announced that its 1984 World Wheelchair Games would not be held in the U.S. that summer as scheduled, because the World Wheelchair Games Corporation had failed to raise the needed funds in time, it was a wake-up call. "We have a tremendous task ahead," Fleming told Mainstream magazine. At the time, Fleming headed the NWAA.

Instead of the separate wheelchair games that year, two wheelchair exhibition events made it into the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles: the women's 800-meter event and the men's 1,500-meter event. Fleming called it "the most significant in the history of wheelchair sports."

"That half hour we spent on the track of the [Los Angeles] Coliseum will do more to advance our sport than anything else in our 30-year history," he said back then.

Well, maybe. The two events have continued every four years as exhibition games at the Olympics; athletes are ineligible for medals. And a year after USOC's official takeover of their name, Paralympians find Atlanta's Olympic Committee wanting nothing to do with them." "The Olympics had a 'don't bother us' attitude when it came to disabled sports," Mark Johnson of Atlanta's Shepherd Center told Mainstream magazine

"They never wanted the Paralympics in the first place," said Johnson, and were slow to release their venues two weeks after the Olympics ended. Paralympians moving into Olympic Village in Atlanta found litter strewing the lawns and the housing "a filthy mess."

Yet in return for $15 million in funds, the Atlanta Olympic Organzing Committe wrested an agreement from Paralympics organizers "not to pursue sponsors who were competitors of Olympics sponsors," reported Mainstream magazine in '96. This meant that since Kodak was an "official sponsor" of the Olympics, Paralymics officials could not solicit funds from Polaroid.

VISA, McDonald's, Anheuser-Busch, Sara Lee, Bausch and Lomb and John Hancock Mutual Life insurance -- 1996 Olympics sponsors -- decided not to sponsor Paralympics events and exercised their right within the sponsorship agreements to block the Paralympic organization from soliciting sponsorships from their competitors. Thus, Paralympics organizers could not approach companies like American Express, Burger King or Coor's for sponsorships, either. McDonald's failure to "release its category" meant that the 1996 Paralympics was unable to take the $4 million Chick Fil-A had wanted to give them, said Hollonbeck.

For 2000, "it would be very easy for the USOC to say, 'Okay, Coca Cola, x percentage is going to go to the Paralympics, and you're going to support both,'" says the U. S. Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association's Linda Mastandrea. For the 1992 Games in Barcelona, there were a lot of these kinds of joint sponsorships, she said. But the USOC doesn't see the value -- the marketability -- of the Paralympics.

"It's very disturbing."

Less than 1.5 percent of the USOC's $462 million "quadrennial" (the 4 years leading up to the Olympic Games) budget goes to programs for disabled athletes. The 1.5 percent figure is a total for all funding going to disabled athletes in any form -- whether it's spent on the USOC's internal Disabled Sports Services department that Shepherd heads, or the budget for the USOC's Committee on Disabled Sports.

Five of the seven U. S. Disabled Sports Organizations are under the Paralympics umbrella: Disabled Sports, USA; the Dwarf Athletic Association of America; the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes; the U.S. Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association and Wheelchair Sports, USA. The U. S. Deaf Sports Federation and Special Olympics, Inc. are not part of the Paralympics group.

"When the ADA came out in 1990, people started griping about discrimination -- so they gave the DSOs some money," is how one of our sources put it. The five DSOs get half their annual budgets from USOC funding.

Terry Madden, Schultz's executive assistant, insists the organization is moving on Paralympic concerns. "We're pushing them like hell. We meet with people almost every other day on Paralympic issues."

Maybe. But so far there's little to show for it.

In 1996 the USOC's Athlete Development and Identification Committee started what they called a Community Olympic Development Program to "identify local motivated athletes in Olympic sports and create a pathway for their athletic development," according to internal documents. Pilot efforts were begun in Minneapolis, San Antonio and Salt Lake City -- and eventually Atlanta -- and staffers hired to run the programs. Disabled athletes aren't allowed to be part of these programs, either.

The San Diego Training Center is a sore point with Hollonbeck. "I'd finally just had it," said the wheelchair racer, who calls himself an Olympian, since he's been in the exhibition wheelchair races in the Olympics. "I called up and said, 'why can't our disabled athletes come out and use the USOC training facility in San Diego?'

"And, you know, they just blow you off. They don't tell you why not. They'll say, 'that's a good idea' -- then they offer you a camp session" when they run one for disabled athletes. "But you can't just go use it like nondisabled athletes can."

Basically, we have no position anywhere within the organization," says Mastandrea, herself a Paralympian. Mastandrea serves with Hollonbeck on the USOC Athlete Advisory Committee. Of the over 50 athletes on the AAC, she said, she and Hollonbeck are the only two non-voting members. (As Ragged Edge was going to press, the AAC voted to make Paralympic representatives voting members.)

"They don't see us as real athletes," Mastandrea says simply. "They don't see that we train the same, that the intensity is the same, that the athlete lifestyle is the same."

Mastandrea calls Shepherd's position a "token."

"There should be a person -- or two -- assigned to every department: marketing, coaching, athlete support," she says. Shepherd remains the only staffer assigned to the USOC's disability sports efforts.

Paralympians have thus far been content to try to change the system from within. There have been "moves in the right direction," says Mastandrea -- paralympians won a commitment from USOC to add four seats on its board for Disabled Sports representatives; a committee on "vertical integration" has been formed, the goal to have disabled soccer players included in the National Governing Body overseeing U.S. soccer; disabled fencers included in the U.S. fencing NGB. "We're moving as quickly as we can," says Madden.

The vertical integration committee is chaired by USOC President William Hybl's Special Assistant Evie Dennis. "Evie Dennis came to a meeting and asked us, 'What do you want vertical integration to look like?' But no position's been set up, no guidance offered as to how it would work," said Mastandrea. Nor has the committee issued any recommendations.

"The Olympic Committee knows the Disabled Sports Organizations aren't well organized and don't have the financial ability to attack them," said one source. "They won't bite the hand that feeds them."

"How patient should we be?" Hollonbeck wrote in a June 9 letter to Hybl. "I have been a member of two Olympic and two Paralympic Teams and I have never been afforded the services provided my ablebodied counterparts at the USOC. I have been denied such basic things as housing and uniforms at the Olympic Games."

Being patient has been ineffective, Hollonbeck told Hybl. "We are asking for action."

I don't have any sponsorships" for the upcoming Games, says Lanier, the wheelchair fencer. "Most of us are basically racking up credit cards. The big catch is, you have to do so well at the international events that the International Wheelchair Committee will give your country slots. The only way to get that is for us athletes to travel to international competitions, most of which are in Europe. If I don't go compete in tournaments, I won't get any points for our country, and our country won't get a slot."

Even athletes who make it to the international events are not guaranteed a slot at the Paralympics, says Lanier. "We're spending all our money on the gamble that we'll be the people who get those slots, but if we didn't at least try, there'd be no slots to get for our country."

Despite the financial difficulties and overall lack of support from the USOC, Lanier, like other Paralympic hopefuls, will continue the sacrifice of time and money They compete for the love of the game, for personal glory, and for the glory of the United States -- even though the U. S. Olympic Committee continues to treat them like unwanted houseguests.

The Committee skirts the ADA, said several people we interviewed, by suggesting that the only legislation that pertains to them is the Amateur Sports Act.

And so far the sports behemoth has remained unchallenged. But sources we talked to say this is about to change.

Vertical Integration

Many disabled athletes today are calling for "vertical integration." Disabled soccer player Eli Wolff from the Center for the Study of Sports and Society says it's the wave of the future. "Vertical," he says, "means competitions are organized around the sport," not the disability. The U.S. soccer team, vertically integrated, would be in charge of soccer for both disabled and nondisabled athletes.

Disabled fencer Lisa Lanier says the U.S. Fencing Association has already achieved vertical integration. "I go to the same tournaments" as do nondisabled fencers, she said. "We don't fence each other, but we're in the same arena. We hang out, we talk.

"Once in a while one of them will come up and say, 'Hey, can I fence with you? I want to see that's like.' "

Wolff calls the disabled sports organizations in the U.S. -- there are 7 of them -- "a segregated sports system." Media present athletes from the segregated programs "not as athletes but as inspirational and courageous people," he says in his 1999 report, "Status of the Seven Disabled Sports Organizations and Recommendations for the Future."

"Although the DSO's are interested in some form of vertical integration," he writes, they "have also resisted changes." Reasons for the resistance include people in leadership positions not wanting to lose their jobs, fear that the rganizations themselves will be disbanded and concern that "the needs of their particular disability group will be lost in the reorganization process."


Paralympians complain that press relations for the Paralympics are entirely in the hands of the USOC, who controls the production of the media kits and access to the media.

"They do the media reports, all the media guides for the Paralympic games, the athletes and the teams," says the USOC's Director of Disabled Sports Mark Shepherd, himself a Paralympian.

"We're not on T.V. because they don't believe they can sell it."

Back to table of contents


© Copyright 1999 The Ragged Edge

This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works