As published in Toronto Star.
Four million Canadians report living with a disability. Only 3 per cent of them are involved in sport. This is a shocking statistic.
This week marks the one-year countdown to the 2015 Parapan American Games in Southern Ontario. It represents a huge opportunity to create social change in Toronto and Canada. How? Let me share with you my personal account, and how the 2012 London Paralympics revolutionized sport and the lives of those with disabilities in the U.K.
As a child I was always very active. But I wasn’t allowed to participate in extracurricular sports because my wheelchair was seen as a possible hazard. I luckily found wheelchair racing. At first I couldn’t afford a racing wheelchair and competed in my first races using a regular everyday wheelchair (imagine competing in a Formula One car race and you’re driving a sedan). But I was determined to participate and give my best. Racing satisfied my competitive spirit, and gave me goals to pursue.
I was lucky to watch and be inspired by Torontonian Jeff Adams powering his way to gold in the 2000 Sydney Paralympics on CBC. But too many others with disabilities remain on the sidelines because they don’t know what options are available to them. Parasport is still growing and does not have a long-established infrastructure that includes a clear pathway for participation, like traditional sports have. And this needs to change.
A successful parasport system begins with increased awareness and recruitment of participants at the grassroots level. A major barrier to participation is equipment cost. A pair of hockey skates for a competitive ice hockey player can cost over $300, but a sled for sledge hockey is more than double that. Running shoes can cost a few hundred dollars, where a quality sports wheelchair to race or play basketball in is worth more than $4,000.
Generating sponsorships and funding for para-athletes to help supplement the costs of equipment, travel and coaching is substantially more difficult to come by than for able-bodied amateur athletes. This is due to the greater media coverage, and in turn public interest, in their sport. It’s here that return on investment is perceived to be higher. But people can only be interested in what they are aware of.
The 2012 Paralympics in London changed everything. It revolutionized the nation, literally. It changed disability awareness and sport in the U.K. forever.
The corporate community treated the Paralympic Games as an equal to the Olympic Games. The reward was sold out stadiums and equal sponsorship deals for top para- and able-bodied British athletes. This has left a true legacy. Participation in disabled sports has grown exponentially in Britain as a result.
At the London Anniversary Games this year, the one-mile wheelchair race in front of Buckingham Palace was the headliner. The television network didn’t even bother to cover the 100-metre dash because the public was more excited about the wheelchair race, and watching 2012 British Paralympic hero David Weir.
In Canada we need to learn from the U.K. model. More corporate involvement is what’s needed now. That’s why I am proud to be a part of an initiative called CIBC Team Next, a program dedicated to supporting 67 young “up and coming” Canadian athletes that hope to represent Canada at the Pan/Parapan American Games, including 16 of this country’s top prospect para-athletes.
CIBC Team Next supports these athletes in a three-year financial contribution, in addition to workshops and seminars focusing on nutrition, sport psychology, business skills and a unique mentorship program that partners the athletes with current and former Canadian international amateur athletes. I am honoured to be a mentor to some of Canada’s brightest future stars, like Cody Caldwell (wheelchair rugby), Pamela LeJean (para-athletics), Justin Karn (judo) and Nikola Goncin (wheelchair basketball). These are the role models of the future.
I can’t imagine how much I would have benefitted, if more programs like this existed 20 years ago. There is a massive vacancy for other programs like this to be developed still.
I’m hopeful that the experience of having the Games right in our backyard will expose just how incredible and exciting parasports can be. Like in the U.K., I’m confident it will build more awareness and galvanize community and corporate support around our incredibly talented and dedicated athletes.
Josh Cassidy is a world-renowned wheelchair racer. He has represented Canada at two Paralympic Games and holds the record for the fastest ever wheelchair marathon, which he achieved at the 2012 Boston Marathon.