Deaflympics "Silence is Golden… and Silver… and Bronze"

(Printed in ABILITY Magazine, volume 2003 John McGinley, pages 16-19)

It was during the opening days of March when over one thousand athletes and spectators from more than 20 countries converged upon the picturesque Swedish mountain town of Sundsvall. The throngs were there for battles of athletic prowess that gave way to international fellowship and camaraderie every time night fell. Such is the Olympic spirit.

The event was the 15th Winter Deaflympics, featuring four medal sports with an approximate total of 25 events: ice hockey, Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing and snowboarding. The participants shared a common bond—all having some level of hearing loss.

The Deaflympics are an official Olympic event sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. The first Deaflympics were summer games in Paris in 1924, with nine countries and 145 athletes participating. By 2001, the games in Rome hosted approximately 60 countries and 2,100 athletes.

The standard that athletes need to meet to qualify for the Deaflympics is a hearing level of at least 55 dB in the better ear. An athlete who has better hearing than that is ineligible.

The U.S. team that convened was among the largest contingents in Sundsvall, numbering 41 athletes who participated in all events. Placing second in the overall medal count, the U.S. won 15 to Russia’s 18. There the story picks up steam. At the closing ceremonies, two representatives from the USA Deaf Sports Federation (USADSF)—the equivalent of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC)—accepted the flag of the International Committee for Deaf Sports (acronymized as CISS because of its French spelling) and announced that Park City, Utah, is honored to be the site of the 2007 Winter Deaflympics.

Before then, in January 2005, Melbourne, Australia expects to welcome 15,000 deaf and hard of hearing athletes and tourists from around the globe for the Summer Deaflympics.

Why Have The Deaflympics Anyway?

As one might expect, perspectives on the deaf organizing their own games range from skepticism to full endorsement. How high is the skill level? Are these athletes truly elite performers? Why doesn’t the USOC streamline by dismantling the Deaflympics and inviting them to try out for national teams? Why doesn’t the Paralympics invite them to qualify? Or there’s the question that asks, “Are the Deaflympics just an excuse for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to hang out?”

Isn’t sport, as everybody likes to say, the great equalizer? Maybe, but it serves humanity best when it comes to closing imaginary chasms dividing the needy and the privileged, the uneducated and the learned or clashing ethnicities. When it comes to communication, there is a great deal of potential impediment in an athlete’s development before he or she even gets on the playing field. Compromised or diluted access to quality coaching, training and to teammate exchange affect both technique and strategy.

Take the example of Kelley Duran, a two-time collegiate All-American skier who medaled in both the slalom and giant slalom in Sundsvall. While still in high school she decided to transfer to a skiing school so she could receive quality training throughout the academic year. It took her and her parents a protracted legal battle before the school would pick up the tab for sign language interpreting. That training opportunity was nearly closed off to her. The experience at the skiing school surely helped her get where she is today, captain of Smith College’s skiing team and collegiate All-American status.

There is also the matter of the USOC disbursing unequal funding to the USADSF as compared to the Paralympics. The latter organization has the luxury of line-item budgeting while the USADSF plead for grants… competing with, again, the Paralympics.

Where’s The Love From The USOC?

Athletes selected by the USADSF to represent our country at international competitions often have to raise funds for themselves, a staggering task for some, compromising their ability to train. In cases of training camps not funded by the USOC, athletes have to fundraise just so they can travel to training opportunities.

USADSF was incorporated in 1945 but America has been sending delegations to international competitions since 1935, and sports for the deaf and hard of hearing had been around for a long time before that. Every step of the way, the organization has been under fire with lingering doubts of legitimacy, even from within, according to comments made by USADSF President Bobbie Beth Scoggins, herself a two-time Deaflympian.

“Currently the USOC directly funds both the regular Olympic athletes and the Paralympics. The USOC seems unprepared to support deaf and hard of hearing athletes for participation in the Deaflympics in a manner equal to that which they provide for all other elite disabled athletes who participate in the Paralympic Games. The struggle for parity continues to be at the heart of the USADSF: parity in recognition, funding and athletic opportunities. We have much work to do.”

USADSD is in the unique position of reporting to two parent organizations. There is the USOC, which is affiliated with the IOC; then there is CISS, the organizer of both the summer and winter Deaflympics, which is a member of the IOC. There could hardly be a better study in contrast than USADSF’s relationship with both parents. USADSF enjoys close ties with CIAS but begs for acknowledgment from USOC.

Scoggins said, “We have asked the USOC to fund Deaflympians on the same basis as Paralympians: on an athlete-to-athlete basis. Our requests for direct funding for Deaflympians have gone unaddressed. It seems the USOC is content to let the request lie dormant, neither approving nor disapproving it. It is my contention that this delay is a tacit denial of our request.”

This implicit resistance from the USOC is one large-scale example among smaller ones. 1997 U.S. flagbearer David Hamilton, who led the U.S. to basketball gold for his fifth time at the 2001 Summer Deaflympics, recounted his freshman year at Southern Illinois, an NCAA division I program. It was during a game in 1983 in which his team got blown out early. The incensed coach put in Hamilton for garbage time, as to penalize the starters. Hamilton scored eight points and handed out six assists, thus making it a tie game at halftime. The coach, wanting to remain competitive in the second half, benched Hamilton for the remainder of the game.

“That was when I decided to transfer out,” Hamilton said. “I have no regrets with going there.” He wasn’t in the coach’s doghouse, it was just that they shared no connection, not even small-time banter. The coach didn’t know sign language and Hamilton is not capable of oral communication; the coach’s stunted relationship with him grew into zero confidence, a very real barrier. Hamilton went on to star on the NCAA division III scene at Gallaudet University, a Washington, D.C. college with 1,600 deaf and hard of hearing students. The coach there knew sign language.

In 2001, nearly two decades later, Hamilton coached the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf high school squad to a 23-4 record, picking up the National Deaf Prep Coach of the Year honors along the way. Still, he is far satisfied with himself as a coach and with his players. “No question, there are kids with the skills. But good coaching and training opportunities, always hard to get, are even less accessible for them.” He admits to not benefiting fully from clinics when interpreters relay information that would be best shared directly, such as when the presenter diagrams plays. Also, when another season rolls around, he invariably faces new recruits who had late introductions to sports. There is often a learning curve to deal with for athletes who are deaf and hard of hearing and didn’t communicate well with previous coaches.

Both pervasive scenarios, impeded coaching development and athlete development, give us understanding of how the role of USADSF comes into play. As the national sports organizing body for athletes with hearing loss, they are responsible for creating opportunities for athlete training and coaching development. By playing against skilled peers without communication barriers, deaf and hard of hearing athletes elevate their levels of playing and strategy. A trickle-down—down to the local playing, training, and coaching level—is the ideal.

Why Should The Deaf Play Together?

South African Terence Parkin, a silver medalist at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in the 200m breaststroke, opted to skip a prestigious competition in Japan so he could take part in the Rome Deaflympics in 2001. Using a system of international gestures, he told media personnel that it was a no-brainer. He just had to be there, as simple as that.

Claims of segregation are as old as any debate concerning the deaf and hard of hearing, from education to marriage. Aren’t they, by competing against each other in their own tournaments and leagues, unwittingly creating their own seclusion?

Schools of thoughts diverge on this, regardless of the actual minority population under discussion. Thos who would advocate the existence of USADSF might want to listen to Henry Kisor, an oralist who has carved a great career for himself at The Chicago Tribune, and Alexander Graham Bell, not only the inventor of the telephone but also an educator of the deaf and an advocate of oralism. Both men, eschewing sign language and stakes to a unique identity, both which lay the foundation of deaf culture, nevertheless found merit in gatherings of the deaf. When you mainstream a deaf child, you isolate him, Kisor wrote in his autobiography, Who’s That Pig Outdoors? Bell was a staunch proponent of deaf education, believing pupils with hearing loss benefited most from having classes together.

The playing field, no less a place for the meeting of minds, is no different from the classroom. Synergy comes full-blown when there is free expression.

The motto of the Olympics is Citius, Altius, Fortius, meaning swifter, higher, stronger. But by which Olympic standard? Parkin took more pride in being the best among his peers than being the best among world-class competition.

Okay, Deaflympics & Paralympics Together Then?

Helping us better understand why streamlining the Deaflympics into the Olympics wouldn’t serve the landscape of deaf athletes are selected excerpts from an essay by CISS past president Jerald Jordan. Here he succinctly addresses a past question of folding the Deaflympics into the Paralympics: “The deaf athlete is physically able-bodied and able to compete without significant restrictions, with the exception of communication barriers. In team sports and some individual events, hearing loss can be limiting. However, these restrictions disappear in the Deaf Games. The sports and their rules are identical to those of able-bodied athletes. There are no special sports, and the only adaptations are to make auditory cues visible. For example, we use strobe lights for starting signals. By comparison, in the Paralympic Games many events are adapted.

While it may be true that all able-bodied athletes compete in one Olympic Games, it is hardly true that all athletes with disabilities compete in one Paralympic Games. In the Olympic Games there are two competitions, for example, in the 100-metre dash—one for men and one for women. In the Paralympic Games, there are many more competitions, due to the classification system, so actually there are many mini-games within the Paralympic Games. If deaf athletes take part, there would still be other mini-games, the deaf athletes would still be segregated from all other athletes with disabilities due to their communication difference.”

Then Jordan addresses the communication barrier that separates the deaf and hard of hearing athletes from everyone else, “Alternatively, if the deaf athletes participate in what would essentially a hearing competition, they would need many sign language interpreters in order to enable communication between the deaf athletes, other athletes and officials. The very purpose of the Games—to bring athletes together—would be lost.”

He concludes by pointing out that existing definitions are inadequate for deaf and hard of hearing athletes, “As a group, deaf people do not fit into either the able-bodied or disabled categories. It has been the oft-repeated experience of the deaf community that our unique needs are lost when we are lumped into either category. Our limits are not physical; rather, they are outside of us, in the social realm of communication. Among hearing people, we are almost always excluded, invisible and unserved. Among ourselves, however, we have no limits.”

Okay, But Why Should the Deaf Play Against Each Other?

Jordan Eickman, a doctoral student at the Centre for Deaf Studies, University of Bristol in England, and himself a two-time Deaflympian in water polo, will soon defend his dissertation, “Role of Deaf Sport in Developing Deaf Identity.” When asked why the deaf should play against each other, he says that athletic competition is relative, subject to the advantages afforded by the regulations. One alteration and the competition sharply tips in one side’s favor.

Eickman recalls an experience with water polo, a game controlled by the referee’s whistle. As a member of the U.S. Deaf Water Polo Team, his team lost in scrimmage against hearing players. In a rematch in which the referee used hand signals in place of a whistle, the opposing team was found to be at a disadvantage and was destroyed. The disadvantages materialize only when the deaf athlete plays with others who do not need to employ visual cues.

Eickman says the obvious, “Training and technique development is significant in the development of world class athletes.” Then he asks of deaf athletes who integrate themselves in hearing sports, “Can they freely converse, communicate and learn from their coaches? Or do they have to rely on watching and mimicking the coach or fellow athletes?”

Eickman theorizes that skills development is charted differently in some sports to accommodate the deaf athlete; sometimes this is a byproduct of their deafness, sometimes it is a compensatory measure toward competitiveness. One of Eickman’s interviewees for his dissertation touched upon the importance of having deaf-friendly tactics/techniques taught to a deaf team. “He (the interviewee) gave an example using soccer. If a deaf player is dribbling, he has to learn to look ahead rather than look at the ball so he knows who is open, unlike hearing athletes who can just depend on auditory cues like someone on the opposing wing shouting, ‘Hey, I’m open.’ They have to watch for a hand signal.”

“The Deaflympics is a place where deaf people can test their athletic skills against other who are deaf. It’s all about shared experiences, culture and all; you can’t take that out of the Deaflympics.” Eickman continues down that line of thinking, “For the most part, I think deaf people all over the world face similar conditions and situations in their education and other aspects of life… which is usually not equal to those of hearing people. The Deaflympics take those inequalities away so to speak; it’s fair competition between people with similar experiences in their upbringing and in life.”

He concludes with a remark on why the Deaflympics should be here to stay, as a competition independent from those with hearing competitors, “Deaflympics are legitimate. As others have already said, they bring along all deaf people for both sporting competition and social/cultural purposes, and that promotes the spirit of the Olympics.”

Duran, the skier from Smith College, would agree. She was quoted in an article as saying, “I have competed in hearing events and when I come to the finish line, the spectators look at me and clap with smiles on their faces. I get no direct communication or understanding of how I’ve competed.”

The she compares that to the recent thrill of competing in the Winter Deaflympics in Sundsvall. “This is my first Deaflympic event and I feel more like an elite athlete here than I have ever felt. I get a rush from the crowd who comes up to me, pats me on the back, and shares with me the success and failures of my competition through direct communication. You cannot beat communication and what that gives to an athlete. My Deaflympic medal means more to me than any competition I have been in.”