The Winter Paralympics offer a light in the shadow of war

With all eyes currently fixed on the war in Ukraine, Paralympians competing in Beijing can show us the bright side of international cooperation.

On March 4, International Paralympic committee (Ipc) president Andrew Parsons delivered his opening speech at the Bird’s nest stadium in Beijing, inaugurating the Winter Paralympics just a few weeks after the end of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

The Opening Ceremony featured a mesmerising array of flashing lights, music and performers, choreographed to convey a message of inclusivity and peace. Yet the beautiful light show and joy of the athletes as they carried their countries’ flags could not chase away the shadow of war which lay heavy on the proceedings. Ukrainian athletes, that faced hardship in getting to the games, opted to parade banners displaying messages such as “no war” and “peace for Ukraine”, with some brought to tears and members of other delegations offering comfort and support.

Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics
Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics © Steph Chambers/Getty Images

A war which Parsons did not fail to acknowledge in his opening speech: “Tonight, I want to begin with a message of peace as the leader of an organisation with inclusion at its core, where diversity is celebrated and differences embraced, I am horrified at what is taking place in the world right now. The twenty-first century is a time for dialogue and diplomacy, not war and hate,” he said.

Olympics in times of war

Controversy over the Ipc’s stance on the war in Ukraine dominated headlines in the days preceding the Opening Ceremony. The Ipc had initially cleared Russian and Belarusian athletes to participate under the Paralympic flag, only to reverse this decision – following boycott threats from multiple NPCs – enforcing a complete ban that has prevented 83 athletes from going to Beijing. “At the Ipc we are very firm believers that sport and politics should not mix. However […], in order to preserve the integrity of these Games and the safety of all participants, we have decided to refuse the athlete entries from Rpc and Npc Belarus,” said Parsons.

Craig Spence
Craig Spence, spokesman of the International paralympic committee (Ipc) © Zhe Ji/Getty Images

“To the athletes from the impacted countries, we are very sorry that you are affected by the decisions your governments took last week in breaching the Olympic truce. You are victims of your governments’ actions,” he continued. A stance that has also been complicated by China, whose close ties to Russia and failure to denounce the invasion of Ukraine has put it at odds with the Ipc. News reports even suggest that Parson’s opening speech was censored by the Chinese national broadcaster CCTV, which failed to translate his condemnation of war on national television and even appeared to lower the volume as he delivered it. “We are aware of reports and have asked CCTV for an explanation,” Ipc spokesman Craig Spence said on Saturday 5. “We are still awaiting a response 24 hours on.”

Yet the shadow of war cannot taint the entire games and rob para-athletes of both their time to shine and their chance to show the world that peace and unity across countries is possible, if nothing else in sports.

Strength in the face of adversity

The Winter Paralympics offer incredible stories of perseverance and strength in the face of adversity. Stories that have the power to inspire both other para-athletes and people across the globe regardless of their physical impediments. From Alpine and Nordic skiing to snowboarding and para ice hockey, the men and women competing in Beijing have shown that there is no limit to what can be achieved with hard work and determination. In the words of Ade Adepitan, a former wheelchair basketball player and gold medal Paralympian, when writing for The Guardian: “I know it sounds a little cliched, but you’ve got these athletes with limbs missing, spinal cord injuries, visual impairments, cerebral palsy and all sorts of levels of disability and they’re managing to conquer the toughest terrain we can face. Mountains. Snow. Ice.”

Andrew Kurka at Winter Paralympics
Andrew Kurka of team USA © Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Just witnessing the visually impaired Alpine ski race, where athletes are directed down the ski slope by a guide whilst the crowd remains silent for the duration of the run so that communication between the pair isn’t broken, is enough to leave any spectator in awe. Stories such as that of the American athlete Andrew Kurka, who broke his back at the age of thirteen and then went on to win gold in 2018, making him the first Alaskan to bring home a Paralympic medal. Not to mention Billy Bridges, one of the most decorated Paralympians of all time, who has claimed a medal of each colour in ice sledge hockey and whose slap shots can reach up to 130 km/h. Or Dutch parasnowboarder Lisa Bunschoten who has collected a silver medal in snowboard cross, a bronze medal in banked slalom, and the overall World Cup title in 2019, whilst founding Adaptive Board Chicks in an effort to inspire other girls to go out and have fun on snowboards.

Lisa Bunschoten at Winter Paralympics
Lisa Bunschoten of team Netherlands © Alex Davidson/Getty Images

It is also the Winter Paralympics with the highest Asian representation ever, largely driven by the Chinese team, that has now had the fortune of having two Paralympic events in their country over the course of fifteen years, providing a unique platform and opportunity for disabled people in the country to showcase their achievements and gain public recognition. Something that appears to be paying dividends in terms of Olympic success as the Chinese team has dominated the medal rankings and can count on athletes such as Zhang Mengqiu, who won silver on day one of the Games and then went on to win China’s first Alpine skiing gold shortly after.

An issue of classification

Yet getting to these Games hasn’t been easy for everyone. Parasnowboarder Cécile Hernandez was unsure whether she would be able to participate until just days before she was scheduled to compete. Hernandez, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, classifies as an SB-LL1 athlete, meaning that she has a significant impairment to at least one leg, is a highly decorated athlete, having collected a silver medal at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, as well as silver and bronze at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang. However, in the aftermath of the 2018 Winter Paralympics, she was informed that the LL1 category event would not take place in Beijing due to a lack of competitors with that level of impairment.

Hernandez was not ready to give up and requested to qualify for the LL2 race, meaning that she would compete with athletes that had a lower level of impairment, therefore putting herself at a disadvantage. However, the Ipc rejected her request as their policy is to prevent athletes from moving between classifications so as to ensure fair competition. The case has exposed some of the flaws in the classification system that has seen multiple athletes complain about their positioning and that of their competitors over the course of the years.

Following a legal battle for the right to participate in Beijing, in which Hernandez argued that the classification system is meant to protect the weak from the strong and not the other way round, she was allowed to compete and went on to take gold in women’s snowboard cross competition on Monday, adding to her already impressive trophy cabinet. Yet another demonstration of why the Paralympics are so important. Even in the face of adversity and war, they offer inspiration for countless people facing difficulties and convey a profound and uplifting message to all the oppressed and disadvantaged.

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