Every four years, the world becomes caught up in the Olympics. During that short span of days, people who might never ordinarily watch swimming, skiing, tennis or a pantheon of other sports, sit entranced and watch them, just because it’s the Olympics. The drama, the medals, the emotions – it’s almost addictive. “The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat,” indeed.
For athletes with challenges that prevent their participation in the Olympics, there are the Paralympics or the Special Olympics. In the Paralympics, spectators can see athletes with physical challenges who may compete in wheelchairs or with the assistance of other physical adaptations. Athletes with mental challenges can also experience the thrill of competition in the Special Olympics.
But where do deaf athletes fit in? Their deafness does not, in itself, prevent athletic participation. Deafness does not cause a person to run more slowly, swing a racket less skillfully, or make a poor turn at the end of a pool lane. Why do we not see deaf athletes competing alongside Kerri Walsh and Michael Phelps?
There are two reasons. The first is that a deaf athlete would be at a disadvantage in competition because he or she could not hear the start pistol, whistles, bells, or other auditory signals. This could cause the athlete to start with a small delay. As was made clear with one of Michael Phelps’ wins, the smallest fraction of a second can make the difference between a gold medal and a silver medal. The second reason is that a deaf athlete could not experience the feeling of “inclusion” because he or she could not engage in spontaneous interaction with his or her hearing peers. There would always be a separation between the deaf athlete and the hearing athletes. Spectators are interested in the sports, but the participants also take away with them wonderful memories of the fun of meeting and interacting with other athletes. Much of this experience would be denied to deaf athletes simply as a result of their deafness.
What arena do elite deaf athletes have for international competition? In 1924, what is now called the Deaflympics were instituted under the name of the International Games for the Deaf. They were the first games held for a group with a disability. The Deaflympics are fully sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee.
Like the Olympics, the Deaflympics are held in a different host city every four years. Since 1949 there have been both summer games and winter games as well. There are some notable differences, however, in how athletes qualify for these games and in how the games are run.
In order the qualify for the Deaflympics, an athlete must have a hearing loss of 55 decibels or more in the “better ear,” and must submit an audiogram, or a chart showing his hearing loss, to prove it. An audiogram showing borderline hearing loss comes under special review before the athlete is accepted into the games. Athletes are forbidden to use hearing aids or cochlear implants during the games. Instead of starter pistols, track events begin with a light flash; football referees wave a flag instead of blowing a whistle. In addition, unlike the Paralympics and the Special Olympics which are run primarily by non-disabled people, the Deaflympics are run by deaf people for deaf athletes.
Hundreds of athletes participate in the winter games and thousands compete in the summer games. Athletes and officials come from all over the world. These games offer a unique opportunity for interaction between deaf athletes who were educated in traditional schools solely for the deaf and those who came from a mainstreamed school environment, where they studied alongside hearing classmates.