Future Directions of the Deaflympics

By David Stewart

David A. Stewart, Ed.D.
Donalda K. Ammons, Ed.D.
(Printed in Palaestra, Summer 2001, Vol 17, No. 3)

On May 16, 2001, the International Olympic Committee met is Lausanne, Switzerland, and voted to approve a request from the Comité International des Sports des Sourds to change the name Deaf World Games to Deaflympics. Previously, the Deaf World Games were called the World Games for the Deaf. With the change to Deaflympics, the international Deaf sport community took a major step towards further recognition of its highest level of competition for deaf athletes.

Preparing athletes to compete in these Games is a common goal shared by the eight-three national Deaf sports organizations that are members of the Comité International des Sports des Sourds (CISS; International Committee of Sports for the Deaf; www.deaflympics.com) which oversees the games. This large number of nations appears to bode well for the future of the Deaflympics and especially so given the fact that many of these nations are new members of the CISS suggesting that Deaf sport is enjoying an increase in its popularity. Moreover, where once CISS member nations were concentrated in Europe, there is now a truly global mixture of nations as witnessed by the following members:

Mongolia Sports Federation of the Deaf
Cyprus Deaf Athletic Organization
Swaziland Association of Sports of the Deaf
Organizacion Deportiva de Sordos del Uruguay
Estonia Deaf Sports Union
Bangladesh Deaf Sports Federation
Iceland Deaf Sports Organization
Deaf Sports Philippines

While these numbers speak clearly to the popularity of the world of Deaf sport at the international level there is increasing evidence that Deaf sport at the grassroots level is not faring as well.

Before moving along, we need to say a word about our source for information. Both of us have extensive involvement in the world of Deaf sports, which allows us to keep abreast of trends and developments in the field. This contact is important because the literature on Deaf sport is sparse. What is available in print, is mostly found in newspapers and newsmagazines that cater mainly to the Deaf community and include the NAD Broadcaster, Silent News, and DeafNation. But stories in these publications are almost solely devoted to reports of scores, championships, athletic accomplishments, and the like with virtually no information about the behind the scenes struggles of Deaf sport athletic teams and organizations.

What we have learned from our contact with Deaf sport directors and coaches is that nearly all sports are having a difficult time recruiting new athletes. The problem appears to be the lack of contact with deaf athletes at the grassroot levels. This raises the question as to whether or not an event such as the Deaflympics can continue to prosper while there is a decline in its traditional means of finding and preparing deaf competitors. Although there is no clear answer to this question there are several social changes occurring in society and within the Deaf community that will directly impact the motivation of deaf people to undertake their own sport activities. These factors include the Deaf community's need to assert their sense of self-determination, the role of schools in the education of deaf children, and the influence of medical advances on shaping the biodemographic make-up of the Deaf community. These factor and others are the focus of this paper's look at the future direction of the Deaflympics.

The Deaf World Games
The Deaflympics is a quadrennial event with a summer and winter Games component. The first Summer Deaflympics was held in Paris in 1924 and it marked the first time an international competition was held for any group of people with a disability. Nine European countries sent athletes to these Games where the competition provided a social context for countries to deliberate about similarities and differences in the welfare of their deaf people. The Games came at time when society viewed deaf people as being intellectually inferior and linguistically impoverished beings (Moores, 2000). This viewpoint was to persist for another 40 years in North America and still persists in some parts of the world today.

Thus, since its inception the Games became an ad hoc forum for deaf people to discuss new ways to advance the lives of deaf people all over the world by the mere fact that the competitions brought many deaf people together. Given the significance of the Games to promoting the general well-being of deaf people, the CISS has emphasized the necessity of encouraging countries to participate and openly awards the Games to different countries in an effort to help the host country present a positive image of deaf people to the national population.

Efforts to expand the number of participating countries has succeeded to the point where over sixty countries participated at the 1997 Summer Deaflympics in Copenhagen, Denmark, representing six continents. About 2,700 athletes competed in these Games and a record 28 countries won a gold medal (Stewart & Bressler, 1997). The athletes competed in 15 sports: athletics (track and field), badminton, basketball, bowling, cycling, orienteering, shooting, table tennis, team handball, tennis, soccer, swimming, water polo, volleyball, and wrestling.

The first World Winter Deaflympics took place in 1949 in Seefeld, Austria. The number of countries participating in the Winter Games is small compared to the Summer Games and about 260 athletes from eighteen countries competed at the 1995 Games in Finland (Stewart & Ojalas, 1995). Athletes compete in only three sports at the Winter Games: ice hockey, alpine, and nordic events. Snowboarding was a demonstration sport at the 1999 Deaflympics in Davos, Switzerland. A complete listing of past and future Games follows:

1924 Paris, France1949 Seefeld, Austria
1928 Amsterdam, Holland1953 Oslo, Norway
1931 Nuremberg, West Germany1955 Oberamergau, West Germany
1935 London, England1959 Montana-Vermala, Switzerland
1939 Stockholm, Sweden1963, Are, Sweden
1949 Copenhagen, Denmark1967 Berchtesgaden, Germany
1953 Brussels, Belgium1971 Abelboden, Switzerland
1957 Milan Italy1975 Lake Placid, United States
1961 Helsinki, Finland1979 Meribel, France
1965 Washington, DC, USA1983 Madonna Di Campigilio, Italy
1969 Belgrade, Yugoslavia1987 Oslo, Norway
1973 Malmo, Sweden1991 Banff, Canada
1977 Bucharest, Romania1995 Yllas, Finland
1981 Cologne, West Germany1999 Davos, Switzerland
1985 Los Angeles, United States2003 Sundsvall, Sweden
1989 Christchurch, New Zealand 
1993 Sofia, Bulgaria 
1997 Copenhagen, Denmark 
2001 Rome, Italy 
2005 Melbourne, Australia 

Factors Impacting the Future of the Deaflympics
The direction that the Deaflympics will take as it slides into the 21st Century is going to be affected by many factors ranging from personal ones related to the athlete to more global ones related to the place of deaf people in society. In particular, these factors will change the characteristics of those who will participate in the Games and will alter the image of how Deaf sports in general are perceived by those who are not deaf. A discussion of these factors is presented with the following caveat- because records of Deaf sport movements in most countries is minimal or nonexistent, much of what is being predicted here is based on our observations at various Deaflympics and our understanding of the dynamics of Deaf sport as it is in the United States and Canada.

Finding the elite deaf athlete. Anyone who has had the opportunity to attend the Deaflympics over the past two decades will have noticed that the characteristic of the average deaf athlete is changing. At one time, an overwhelming number of deaf athletes attended a school for deaf children where many of them were first initiated into sports. These deaf athletes did not compete on nondeaf teams in the general population and they used sign language as their main means of interpersonal communication. While sign language is not universal, knowledge of it made conversing with people from other countries easier than if some other mode of communication was used such as speech. This is always noticeable at the Games where deaf athletes from different countries freely talk to one another in signs and without the assistant of an interpreter. The deaf athletes of yesterday if not attending a school for deaf children were typically active members in their local Deaf community and especially in this community's spo rts program. This made them a reservoir of information about their Deaf world which they exchanged at the Games with people from Deaf communities in other parts of the world.

But schools for deaf children are no longer the mainstay for educating deaf children that they once were. Deaf children today are increasingly being educated in general education schools along with their nondeaf peers. This trend has been occurring in the United States and Canada for the past twenty years and is also evident in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, and other countries in western Europe. With dwindling numbers of students, it has become difficult for many schools for deaf children to offer a full slate of extracurricular sports. As a result, deaf students attending these schools do not always get the exposure to sports necessary to help them develop into an elite athlete.

Parallel to this decline in enrollment in schools for deaf children we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of students obtaining an education in local public schools. These students comprise a growing breed of deaf athletes and they bring to the Games a different standard of social expectations. Many deaf students in public schools are not exposed to the use of sign language and rely instead on oral communication. They are usually the only deaf person on a team or in a sports club. While their athletic prowess may earn them a spot on a national Deaf team they hover at the fringe of the social interactions that occur at the Games. Without signing skills they lack the means of gainfully interacting with those who are involved in the governance of Deaf sport at the local through international levels. (See Kathleen Ellis's "Response to Stewart and Ammons: A Voice From the Mainstream" in this issue for a perspective of a deaf person growing up in a public school setting with no co ntact with deaf athletes or the Deaf community.)

There are, of course, some public school programs that incorporate sign communication in their instructions. While deaf students from these school will often know how to sign, their placement in a public school still means that their involvement in sports will mainly be with hearing peers. Such involvement poses a problem for national Deaf teams which must now find a means of recruiting athletes from a wider population base of students The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many public school programs do not infuse information about the Deaf community into their curriculum for deaf students (Gaustad, 1999). Coaches and physical education teachers too, are often ignorant of the opportunities available for promising deaf athletes not only at the international level but also within the local community. These athletes leave school and may spend several years as adults before they encounter information about opportunities in Deaf sport. These are the years when they may be at the height of their game.

Concomitant with the difficulty in accessing deaf athletes who are enrolled in or are products of the public school system, is the fact that these athletes are desirable because of the higher standard of competition they face with the hearing athletes they play with (Stewart, McCarthy, & Robinson, 1988; Stewart, Robinson, & McCarthy, 1991). Numbers alone ensures that competition with hearing athletes will be stiffer and excellence will usually be marked by higher standards than in competitions with deaf athletes only.

Given the changes that are occurring in schools, we can predict that the trend toward more public school athletes on national Deaf teams will continue. It is also safe to say that accessing these athletes will become less of a problem as national Deaf sport organizations learn to use the internet as a means for informing others about the opportunities in the sports that they provide. We can expect that there will be a growing awareness among coaches in school and community sports and among physical education teachers about these opportunities as information about high level competitions such as the Deaflympics become more prevalent because of technological advances that facilitate the spread of information through the media and the internet.

Keeping the Games Deaf
Deaf people take much pride in knowing that the Deaflympics is of their own doing. The CISS Executive Board consists only of deaf members. Only deaf people are allowed to represent their national Deaf sport organizations at international meetings involving the CISS including those related to the Deaflympics. All athletes are obviously deaf in that each must have a minimum of 55 decibel hearing loss in their better ear before they are permitted to participate.

Not so obvious is the fact that the rules for playing each sport are not altered in any way for the deaf participants. This fact distinguishes Deaf sport from sports played by other groups of people with disabilities. Deaf people are not disabled in any manner except communication—and this is only a disability when a deaf person is in a situation where hearing and speech are the primary means of communication. Deaf people consider themselves a culturally distinct minority group and it is for cultural reasons that the Deaflympics exists. That is, culture and not ability to play a game is the factor central to deaf people having the Deaflympics. Deaf people want to be among others who are deaf and talk in sign language.

But is pride enough to keep the Games Deaf? CISS has refused to join the International Paralympics Committee on the grounds that it does not want to give up its autonomy and have the Deaflympics merged with the Paralympics (Stewart & Ammons, 1994). Moreover, there is a growing concern among national Deaf sport governing bodies that hosting the Deaflympics is becoming increasingly more expensive as is the cost of participating in them. Raising money to offset the costs is becoming more difficult because each year it appears that corporations and households are more heavily canvassed by their communities for sponsorships and charitable donations. In other words, the Games represent an increasing financial burden to the Deaf community that support them.

Continuing concern for the financial aspect of running the Games has caused some national Deaf sport organizations to push for Deaflympics to become a part of the Paralympics. These organizations want to reduce their responsibility for organizing and funding the Games. While they admit that control over various aspects of the Games would be lost, they also point out that the Paralympics would provide adequate assurance that the Games will continue. Furthermore, they harbor no reservations about being associated with other international games for people with disabilities. This push to join the Paralympics is not just coming from the nations with poor financial resources but also from some deaf people in the United States and Canada who desire the increased media exposure that the Paralympics would give deaf athletes. It would be interesting to find out if those people who favor deaf people participating in the Paralympics, understand that there would a cap on the number of deaf athletes who can particip ate. If only a limited number of athletes can participate then they might change their minds.

In order for the deaflympics to continue to be played the way they have been since their inception in 1924, it is important that the key people making decisions about the Games have strong ties to their Deaf communities and embrace the culture that these communities spawn. Self-determination is one aspect of this culture (Stewart, 1991). Those deaf people who are against joining the Paralympics want to have the first and final say in all matters relating to the Games. They do not want the Deaflympics in Sydney, Australia simply because a group of nondeaf people have decided that's where Olympics and hence, Paralympics are going to be held. They want the Games in a country where a group of deaf people have made a winning bid to host the Games.

But do enough of these kinds of deaf people exist? For now they do. But the push to remain autonomous may weaken as the cultural ties that initially led to the formation of the Deaflympics continue to be eroded by educational practices that keep deaf children dispersed over wide geographical areas and away from schools for deaf children where many of them would be socialized into deaf sports and other cultural activities relating to the Deaf community.

We acknowledge the possibility that one day, our trip to a Deaflympics event might feature a tour of Olympic facilities that days ago were home to the best athletes in the world, some of whom will be deaf. If this should occur, then we will view this occasion with sadness for the lost of self-determination on the part of the Deaf community. But we will also understand that at least some aspect of the Deaflympics would be metamorphosing into a new cultural event for the Deaf community and that as with all Games in the past, sign language will continue to be the linguistic champion of the deaf participants. And that yearning to be with other deaf people will still be a factor in motivating many of the athletes to participate in the Game in whatever venue that they might be held.

Gaustad, M.G. (1999). Including the kids across the hall: Collaborative instruction. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4(3), 176-190.
Moores, D.F. (2000). Educating the deaf (5th Ed.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Stewart, D. (1991). Deaf sport: Images of sports in the Deaf community. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.
Stewart, D., & Ammons, D. (Winter, 1994). Awakenings: The 1993 World Games for the Deaf. Palaestra. 10, 26-31.
Stewart, D., & Bressler, H. (1997, Fall). The XVIII World Games for the Deaf: A musical paradox. Palaestra, 13 (4), 32-35.
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Stewart, D., Robinson, J., & McCarthy, D. (1991). Participation in Deaf sport: Characteristics of elite Deaf athletes. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 8, 136-145.

Future Directions of the Deaf World Games

David A. Stewart, Ed.D.
Michigan State University

[Biography: Dr. Stewart is a professor and director of the Deaf Education program at Michigan State University. He is the Technical Delegate for ice hockey for the ComitÈ International des Sports des Sourds and is an Associate Editor for Palaestra.]

Donalda K. Ammons, Ed.D.
Gallaudet University

[Biography: Dr. Ammons is a professor at Gallaudet University. She is the Secretary-General for the Comité International des Sports des Sourds and is a Field Editor for Palaestra.]