Starting gun shooting blanks for disabled sports champs
Oscar Pistorius is a 400m runner who won a silver medal last week at the World Athletics Championships, with his approved set of carbon fibre prosthetic legs.
Terence Parkin won a silver medal in 200m breaststroke at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Sekou Kanneh is an Australian eleven-year-old aspiring Olympic sprinter, running competitively in both the 100m and 200m events.
They may not have too much in common, but they are all athletically gifted and experience barriers in our society. Parkin and Pistorius, however, compete in elite international competitions, and their “disabilities” are made irrelevant in their chosen sports.
Kanneh’s considerable athletic potential, however, is being stifled by School Sports Australia who are worried about “setting a precedent”.
While Olympic swimming competition, and all the levels below that pinnacle, allow the use of a strobe light for deaf swimmers like Parkin to know when to start his races, School Sports Australia say that a visual signal for a boy who can’t hear the starter gun “might distract the other runners”.
Kanneh is a promising runner, having qualified for the upcoming School Sport Australia Primary Track and Field Exchange Athletics Carnival in Darwin.
He holds his own in the able-bodied division for the 100m and 200m sprints, coming second at the Queensland state qualifying round, despite not being able to hear the starter’s gun at the beginning of the race. Kanneh takes his cue to run from the other athletes on the field. Crouched, with his head turned to watch them, he leaves the blocks only after everyone else has started the race.
In races like the 100m dash, that split second is everything and can spell the difference between bringing home the gold or a silver.
Deaf Sports Australia (DSA) is the national peak body for deaf sports in this country. They recently approached School Sports Australia (SSA) on Kanneh’s behalf to ask that a visual aid be supplied at the starting line.
Why the starting signal must be a fired gun, we don’t know. It seems that the only reason is: That’s the way it’s always been.
The request was denied, citing that it would create a precedent that would cause problems in the future.
It’s a precedent that is long overdue in the sporting world, and Graeme Innes, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, agrees. He’s disappointed that a national school sports organisation would take such a narrow view.
“Their action sends a totally wrong message to all of the young athletes and supporters involved - if you can’t hear you can’t equally participate,” he says.
Deaf Sports Australia have now filed a formal complaint with the Human Rights Commission. It’s bewildering that at the age of eleven, this boy has to fight for his right to equal treatment.
Dean Barton-Smith is an ex-Olympian who competed in the decathlon event at the 1992 Olympics, and the 1990 and 1994 Commonwealth Games. He too, is deaf.
“I have lost many competitions, kept running after false starts, and produced below-par performances in my prime for lack of a visual starter sign.
“To expect a deaf person to react to the sound of a starting gun is much like asking a blind person to react to the wave of a starting flag. It’s a simple, fair and reasonable request. It is inexcusable and discriminatory” says Barton-Smith.
School Sports Australia say that if Kanneh wants his “special treatment” he will have to compete in the disability event.
Does that mean that we could potentially see a deaf runner in the disability event run faster times than those in the “regular” competition? I must admit, there is something I like about that, just as I imagine that runners like Pistorius may well outrun those “ablebods” in the near future…
We’re pretty confident that Kurt Fearnley’s 1 hour 23 minute marathon is faster than anyone with two working legs has managed.
“Seeing him (Pistorius) race in able-bodied competitions on a world stage, challenges the idea that disability is associated with limitations.
“Disability can show strength & excellence! Stopping Sekou now may rob the sporting world of ever seeing what his true potential is,” says Fearnley, Australia’s gold medal winning paralympian.
But Kanneh has no disability, or prosthetic, or wheels that either hinders or enhance the speed at which he can run. He just needs to be shown when to start running his races.
“I’m focused and dedicated,” said Kanneh in a TV news interview via an interpreter. “I want to do more hard work and keep going.” It’s a strength of character he will clearly need for the years ahead, should he decide to pursue his athletics career.
Kanneh’s case, if unsuccessful, has the potential to deliver a backhander to the very key messages DSA has been delivering, and undermines the hopes of young deaf children in our sports-mad nation.
To see this kid denied the opportunity to race on an equal footing with fellow able-bodied athletes goes against everything DSA and other disability groups have been promoting and advocating for years.
And really, what sort of message is this sending to young athletes, those with or without hearing, with or without legs?
In Kurt Fearnley’s words: “Let the boy run! And let his competitors see that deafness or disability isn’t a burden but a shining addition”.
Brent Phillips, President of Deaf Sports Australia (http://www.deafsports.org.au/) and the Angry Cripple Editor have co-written this piece.
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