They exist in a strange purgatory, neither damned by their physical limitations nor delivered by their fierce spirit. They have been condemned to sport's netherworld, where most of the attention they do get is unflattering and maddening. "A Face in the Crowd!" says one athlete, dismayed after all these years by some misguided attempt at recognition. "I won the Boston Marathon five times! I am not a Face in the Crowd!" It has been a frustrating limbo. Disabled athletes descend on an important meet, their intensity as terrible as that of any able-bodied sportsman, and they evoke more sympathy than wonder. The confluence of medi-vans at the staging area, let's face it, more likely suggests an air disaster to the average fan than the National Wheelchair & Amputee Championships.
But things change, even in sports. Disabled athletes, frustrated by lack of opportunity and any serious consideration of what they are about, have wrought tremendous changes in attitude toward the things they do. Just look at their movement, not quite militant but very active, to see what they've achieved in recent years: Short of going on strike, they have pretty much done everything they can to duplicate the big-time sports experience. They've earned money, exposure and increasing clout. They've engaged in in-house squabbling, litigation and feuds. They've even cheated. It's not major league stuff, not yet. But for a movement that has long suffered the patronizing attitudes of sports fans, at least in the U.S., this new and feisty personality represents progress. Mainstream? Probably not, but you know they're on the right track when a call to one of the elite athletes, a world-record sprinter who happens to have neither hands nor feet, is returned five days later. By his agent.
This coming of age has been slow in coming, but officials and athletes expect next year's Paralympics, held 12 days after the 1996 Games in Atlanta, to announce an explosion in levels of participation and competition among athletes with disabilities. They believe that performances on such a grand stage will help dispel the notion—for the four fifths of the U.S. population that is not disabled—that these sports are an extended rehab program for damaged people or just high-level recreation that might be "inspirational" to the rest of us. Disabled athletes hope that what they do will be revealed as sport: the kind of rigorous and cutthroat activity that fans pay to watch, that kids want to try.
"These are not the games where everybody gets a medal," says veteran wheelchair road racer Jim Knaub, almost sneering in reference to the feel-good Special Olympics. And these are no longer athletes who beam at the mention of their "courage." If Paralympic sports—divided into the blind, amputees, cerebral-palsy sufferers, paraplegics, quadraplegics, dwarfs and those with various other disabilities—were once informed by an undercurrent of sympathy, they are much less so now. Of course, it is still no big trick to pick out an athlete who has suffered some horrific calamity or medical condition, detail the work required to overcome it and end up with a tale of heroism. And, let's face it, it often is inspirational compared with the back-rehab story of, oh, Darryl Strawberry. But these days disabled athletes bristle at the I-word. In June, at the National-Wheelchair & Amputee Championships in Boston, a one-legged guy named Shawn Brown set an unofficial world record in the discus (50.13 meters) but would talk about it only on one condition. "Is this going to be a sports story?" he asked. "I don't do human interest."
These people do sports and want to be taken seriously for it. Many of them, you find, were elite athletes before being disabled (not a few, it turns out, were clipped by drunk drivers and hit-and-run artists while they were in training), and they intend to remain at that level no matter what parts are missing or simply not operating. That is more achievable these days because of better education at the rehab stage, better technology and a modest level of enlightenment among the nondisabled (the PC term of the moment). Excelling as a disabled athlete is still difficult—most students don't have to sue to play high school sports—and expensive. The sleek three-wheeled racing chairs made by Top End can cost almost $4,000, a prosthesis including a Flex-Foot might go for $10,000, and Paralympic training and travel can cost a U.S. athlete thousands of dollars a year. But as the pool of talent deepens and standards keep getting higher, it becomes impossible to dismiss this movement as some kind of Olympic sideshow.
There is now an ESPN program, Break Away, that features sports for the disabled. There are magazines, from Sports 'n Spokes to Palaestra, that treat disabled athletes as authentic sports figures. There is a circuit for wheelchair road racers that offers the best of them a decent living ($30,000 or more annually). There is corporate sponsorship, with Home Depot kicking in $4 million to the Paralympics and other companies such as IBM, United Airlines and Coca-Cola contributing to disabled sports. There is industry involvement as well; representatives of Flex-Foot and Top End mill about at events in ways that recall Nike salesmen. And, of course, there is the national imperative guaranteed by the '96 Paralympics, which will present 4,000 athletes from more than 115 countries in a dizzying array of events, all of them categorized by nature and degree of disability, so that there might be 15 different versions of the 100-meter dash.
Maybe a better way to illustrate the arrival of sports for the disabled is to look at a single event, say wheelchair racing. In 1979 George Murray broke the five-minute barrier with a 4:59.7 mile. Only six years later he broke the four-minute barrier, and today the world record, held by Jeff Adams, is 3:30.2. In the marathon, meanwhile, a great time nowadays is 90-some minutes. Credit for a lot of this progress goes to the development of the racing chair. Andy Fleming, president of the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee (APOC), says that when athletes moved from clunky "everydays" to racing chairs, everything changed. "Racing became more enjoyable, more people got involved. And with increasing competition, they started training harder. Now you can't compete with the elite racers without the commitment to the sport that Olympians would make."
Really, the distinction between wheelchair racers and Olympians is fading at these high levels. Guys like Scot Hollonbeck and James Briggs, who travel the country bagging $2,000 and $4,000 first-place prizes, mirror the big able-bodied track stars in their conditioning, demeanor and total absorption in their sport. The wheelchair competition is now so keen that only the driven are rewarded. Consider Hollonbeck, 25, whose progress to the top level is fairly representative of the modern elite competitor's. He was an all-around athlete when he was hit by a car in 1984, but he knew he would be a wheelchair athlete as soon as he awoke from the surgery that stabilized his spinal column. "I looked up, and on TV there was somebody winning a gold medal in a wheelchair. I said right then, 'I'd like to try that.' " And he did, racing on his high school track team, although he didn't always receive lots of encouragement. Several times opposing teams refused to let him race against their runners, and his own team had to threaten to pull out of events to force opponents' hands. But eventually Hollonbeck's high school bailed out on him, and his family was forced to take the issue to federal court.
Of course by the time the suit was resolved, in Hollonbeck's favor, he was long gone. Lucky for him, there was someplace to go, a place Briggs calls "the mecca" for athletes with disabilities. At the University of Illinois, where wheelchair racing and basketball are thriving sports thanks to the school's Division of Rehabilitation Education Services (DRES), both Briggs, now 23, and Hollonbeck got the kind of coaching and support that their able-bodied brethren take for granted. Most college athletes are not this fortunate; Illinois and Texas-Arlington are among the few universities that recruit disabled athletes. (Small scholarships are available at Illinois.) And at Illinois, where professor Timothy Nugent introduced wheelchair basketball in 1948, the sensibility has been rigorous and unforgiving. "We're looking forward to the day when people see the accomplishment and don't get misty-eyed," Brad Hedrick of DRES has said. "We want that kind of acknowledgment. Not the acknowledgment of the disability. Acknowledgment of athleticism."
Although the Illinois approach is slowly filtering through the collegiate ranks, the school remains a kind of Colorado Springs of disabled sports. Hollonbeck's experience there paid off. He wasn't good enough to make the U.S. Paralympic team in 1988, but he was by 1992, and he won three medals in Barcelona: two golds (in the 4x400 meters and the 800) and a silver (1,500 meters). And in Europe, where track and field is more highly regarded than in the U.S., Hollonbeck found the same kind of adulation that greets the able-bodied. "In Zurich there were 21,000 at a race," he says. "I had to have security to get me out."