Never Heard of the Deaflympics?

Samsun emblem2017-s-large

As we get closer towards the Opening Ceremony of the 23rd Deaflympic games in Samsun, Turkey this summer, Deaflympic athletes and their supporters are working hard to raise the profile of this event through Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram etc) – this is generating the important and necessary exposure that the event needs.

This is important because it is still largely unknown in the sports world and to the general public and therefore many people will be finding out about the Deaflympics for the first time. When they learn that the Deaflympics are the oldest International multi-sports event in the world for disabled people, they want to know why they have not heard the name before.

All types of movements and organisations within society are highly dependent on the political and public profile that the leaders inherit, cultivate or acquire. The founding of the Olympic, Deaflympic and Paralympic movements all originate from the ideals, beliefs, innovations and leadership of three individuals who have been credited as ‘founding fathers’ of their respective events. They were Baron de Coubertin, Eugene Rubens-Alcais and Ludwig Guttmann.

These founding fathers all started their movements from different starting points and once people understand this, they will realise how important the Socio-economic backgrounds and the amount of political influence that these leaders had was critical in raising the profile of their causes.

Socio-economic backgrounds

Before the first Olympic and Paralympics Games were inaugurated, Coubertin and Guttmann had already become very successful, wellconnecetd and highly celebrated in their professional careers.

In contrast, the co-founder of the International Games for the Deaf, Rubens-Alcais, in his lifetime, never progressed to become anything more than a car-mechanic in a Paris suburb. This surely suggests that the legacy of Eugene Rubens-Alcais is remarkable.

Without a comparable high standing in society, Rubens-Alcais was unable to call upon networks or influential political support when most needed. Described as a ‘brilliant’ man of modest habits, he spent the whole of his adult life in a sparsely furnished and simple attic apartment. He gave all his time and everything he had to the cause of his friends and others.

He was eventually recognised decorated several times by his fellow countrymen; Officier d’Académie 1930 (Silver Palms) – awarded in France for contributions to national education and culture, Médaille d’Or de l’Education Physique (1930), a Gold Medal for Physical Education, Chevalier du Mérite Norvegien (1960), Chevalier du Mérite Social and the Commandeur du Mérite Sportif (1962).

For Guttmann, his starting point was very different. When he first established the Stoke Mandeville games, he was able to call upon the support of many influential people. One of his spinal-cord associates was Professor Maglio, who ran an Italian research centre on impairments. They collaborated and worked to ensure their Games followed on from the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Dr Nakamura, a Japanese medical researcher worked with Mr Kasai, Chairman of the Japanese Sports Association for the Disabled who, through him, had close ties to the Japanese government. And Kasai’s further influence secured funding for the 1964 Games from both public and private sector sources. When the Mexican government cited ‘technical difficulties’ as their reason for not hosting the Paralympics in 1968, the Israeli Government was lobbied by the ILAN Society (a group of disability activists); and this resulted in the event being hosted near Tel Aviv.

 Political Influences

The political connections accessible to Coubertin and Guttmann placed them in a position of influence that Rubens-Alcais could never hope to achieve.

The Olympics were not an original idea of Coubertin. In the beginning, an Englishman, Dr Brookes attempted to revive the concept of the original Olympic Games but was studiously ignored by the British sports establishment, despite having contacts within the Greek government and with the Greek Olympic philanthropists, the Zappas cousins. Brookes then began to collaborate with Coubertin who used his international society contacts to persuade the King of Greece and its government, along with others, to fund the 1896 Olympics in Athens.

The British government funded Guttmann’s research work so he already had the political backing he required. The idea of using sport as a motivator came to Guttmann when he observed patients playing a game in their wheelchairs utilizing a puck and an up-turned walking stick. The Disabled Persons (Employment) Act was passed by the British government in 1944 and members of Parliament who were war-veterans themselves ‘insisted that the act give preference to those injured as a result of war service’. This, however, focused on those who had become disabled by the trauma of war and did nothing to help the congenitally disabled that had not been injured in the line of duty.

It is necessary to digress here, whilst on the subject of political influence, and introduce a fourth pioneer – Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics. Her first “Shriver Camp” was set up in 1962 and was an indelible part of the philanthropic Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation and the political drive of President John Kennedy towards the needs of children and the field of intellectual disability. The Kennedy legacy still remains a large attribute of the Special Olympics today.

Eugene Rubens-Alcais, who was born with normal hearing but became deaf at an early age due to fever, already had odds stocked against him when, in the 1920s, he began his far-reaching friendship with Antoine Dresse. Antoine came from a family of Belgian bankers and industrialists in Liege. These two men formed a unique alliance of interests as they began to build a federation of pan European Deaf sports organizations. They had small networks to draw upon and neither had the credibility of a highly respected international social/professional position. But, nevertheless, what they had was an opportunity to empower disabled people in a society that largely ostracised them.

Eugene Rubens-Alcais resigned as the President of the Comité International des Sports Silencieux (CISS) in 1953 and was succeeded by four other leaders who had to compete with Guttmann’s political standing until Robert Steadward in turn succeeded him. Rubens-Alcais’ successors were also people of modest socio-economic standing (See table below)

Table: CISS Presidents during the time Guttmann led the International Stoke Mandeville Games Federation (ISMGF)
Rubens Alcais FRA (1924-1953) Car mechanic
Oscar Ryden SWE (1953-1955) Joiner, woodcarver, Sculptor, editor and lecturer.
J.P Neilsen DEN (1955-1961) Carpenter
Pierre Bernhard FRA (1961-1971) Carpenter, wood sculptor, coffin maker and WW2 resistance fighter.
Jerald Jordan USA (1971-1995) Printer, teacher, administrator at Gallaudet University for the Deaf.
Further details and biographies can be found in CISS 2001: A Review.

To read more about this subject and understand how the disempowerment of disabled people and the professional background of Deaflympic leaders may also have been a strong factor in the low-profile of the Deaflympics, you can order your own copy of Same Spirit Different Team by giving your contact details here.

The above article is an edited extract from the book itself.

A Tribute to Professor Margaret Talbot OBE PhD, FRSA

Today at 7:55am, Deaf sport lost one of its greatest supporters, Professor Margaret Talbot.

Margaret Talbot

I am greatly indebted to Margaret, as I, like countless others, can count her as one of my loyal friends and a great professional mentor. She never wanted anything in return, always happy to share her thoughts and offer insight when things were going well or falling apart. I treated her counsel with care because her time and support was something special and valuable, not to be abused.

I first met Margaret when I was 19 years old, working at Friends for Young Deaf people in the early 1980s, she took a great interest in our sport and development work with young deaf and hearing people – at that time, we were pioneering Deaf people’s involvement in the CCPR Community Sports Leaders Award and it was through her inspiration as CEO of the Association of Physical Education UK that contributed towards my decision to get into PE teaching.

Later, when she was CEO at the Central Council for Physical Recreation, she encouraged me to speak publicly at meetings and conferences about Deaf sport and challenge her peers and political decision makers to think about how National Governing Bodies of sport and education could be more inclusive and equitable.

When I came to write “Same Spirit Different Team – The Politicisation of the Deaflympics. Margaret was there to offer guidance, even offering the time to read drafts and suggest changes. It did not matter that she held high office in the world of sport and acted as consultant to the United Nations, she never forgot those of us at the chalk-face, in the classrooms, on the sports fields; we were her equals, no matter what.

I hold a deep sense of gratitude to Professor Talbot and cherish every word she wrote in her Foreword for my book. Those of us, who had the privilege to know her, will remember her as someone who knew how to challenge ignorance and bigotry in a way that allowed people not to lose face, a rare talent indeed.

Happy Travels my Friend.

Can we keep blaming the Referees ?

A story that has been circulating in the UK media this week about Deaf footballers is a prime example of how the media influences public perception about Deaf people and their involvement in sport.

 

GB v Japan  Summer Deaflympics 2009, Taipei

GB v Japan Summer Deaflympics 2009, Taipei – Photo by Sam Perkins

The first headline in the Birmingham Mail (07:00 26th May 2014) was “Birmingham Deaf football team end season on minus six points.” details

 

By the time others had got hold of the story and published online, the headlines read :

“Deaf football team concede 164 goals because they couldn’t hear referees whistle.” (Mirror 10:53 )  details

 

“Deaf football team who conceded 164 goals, appeal against relegation because they couldn’t hear the referees whistle.” (Metro 12:32) details

 

“They would keep running after the whistle blew: Deaf football team who finished on record low points total blame not being able to hear referee.” (Mail Online 13:43) details

 

How have the readers reacted?

From all the comments posted:

36% were either prejudiced or negative in their attitudes towards Deaf and disabled people

20% showed their support to the Deaf players and felt referees should be trained to be deaf-friendly with flags.

17% offered constructive suggestions for improving the situation in future

17% were critical of the media’s handling of the story

10% commented constructively that there were other factors causing poor performances

It is a worrying statistic to see 36% prejudiced against Deaf people. This appears to reflect a similar study of racism in the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey published this week declaring that 1 in 3 people surveyed admitted to being racially prejudiced.

(27th May 9:15am) Callum Fox , Marketing and Communications Officer at North Riding County Football Association:

“If you’re going to pinch a story, have the decency to quote the original which was published in the Birmingham Mail … Also shame on Metro for completely twisting the story to suit their desire for click bait by omitting an entire section of quotes in which the manager says he blames the teams performance for their poor performances, not the ref as you claim. The “journalist” who wrote this ought to be ashamed of himself.”

 

It can be argued that a more skillful Deaf player will be able to cope without the need for referees to wave flags. But in the Deaflympics, the elite Deaf football competition, match officials do use flags as the following picture will illustrate:

Referee carrying flag during Deaflympics competition.

Referee carrying flag during Deaflympics competition.   – Photo by Sam Perkins

 

In the background, we can see additional match officials with flag during Deaflympic competition.

In the background, we can see additional match officials with flag during Deaflympic competition.  Photo  by Sam Perkins

As I mentioned in my last post, it is often said that the rules of sport do not need to be modified for deaf athletes and players. This is misleading, it should be pointed out that the playing environment does need to be adapted – everyone in football does need to become more deaf aware and if they really believe that they are inclusive, they have to take action and compensate by using flags. But, quite rightly, there are Deaf football teams who perform consistently well against hearing opponents and so referees not waving flags is not the only reason for the failure of Birmingham Deaf FC.

 

UK Deaf Sport staff are investigating the matter and have been working with Birmingham FA and the UK Deaf Football Federation to move forwards and make improvements. When UKDS consulted with partners at Birmingham Institute for the Deaf who have been supporting the football club it was reported that team are unhappy with how the story has been portrayed, the team are the first to admit that they did not play well, and due to lack of organisation and commitment ended in a very poor result.

“From what we can tell, the reporter focused on the issue of lack of flag usage”.

The BDFC secretary said

Deaf people want to play sports and be treated equally to other people yet after one disappointing season they have been published in newspapers for all the wrong reasons.”

 

Whilst there are many factors that will affect a team’s performance in a competition, the fact remains that in team sports, if the players do not feel they can trust officials to be unbiased they will not be motivated to sustain their involvement and seek ‘the level playing field’ elsewhere. To be truly inclusive governing bodies of sport need to be more proactive and take their responsibilities seriously by working with Deaf sport to provide the right level of training an awareness that is required of everyone involved, players as well as officials.

 

Enterprising companies have used wireless digital technology to create vibrating armbands that react when a whistle is blown. But this technology is far too expensive and beyond the reach of the regular amateur club, so for now, football needs to follow the Deaflympic protocol for match officials to use visual signals to signal that the whistle has been blown.

For a more in-depth study of how the media portrays the Deaflympics, read Same Spirit Different Team available now from Action Deafness Books.