At the Paralympics, Less is More

Posted by Daniel Thomas
March 11, 2014
Laurie Stephens of the U.S. Races to Win a Medal in Alpine Skiing at the 2014 Winter Paralympics

Paralympians are known for their ability to overcome obstacles and triumph no matter the odds.  Few athletes compete at the highest levels of competition, and even fewer can do so while facing the physical challenges that define the Paralympics, making these remarkable athletes even rarer.  Partly for this reason, the Paralympic Games are much smaller than the Olympics, featuring fewer athletes competing in five events instead of 15.  But make no mistake -- these Games ask much more of their athletes.

Events at the Paralympics closely resemble those featured at the Olympic Games, but with some changes that raise their level of difficulty.  For example, alpine skiing incorporates guides for the vision-impaired athletes.  The guide skis ahead of the competitor, giving instructions over a radio headset to tell the skier when to turn, tuck and jump.  For these skiers, their success becomes dependent not only on their own ability, but also clear communication with the guide.  Both must be perfect to reach the podium at the Paralympics.  However, Team USA found that balance between competitor and guide in 2010, medaling 11 times in the alpine events.

Wheelchair curling also is different from its Olympic counterpart.  Instead of fielding both women’s and men’s teams, the Paralympics squad is mixed gender.  Each team consists of four members, and each must have at least one representative of each gender.  In addition wheelchair curling does not allow sweeping, making the primary “throw” of the stone much more important.  These alterations to the rules change the strategy used by teams in each competition.  Although Team USA has never medaled in wheelchair curling in the past, the sport is steadily gaining in popularity and Team USA is stronger than ever.   

Sledge hockey and Nordic skiing/biathlon closely resemble their Olympic Counterparts, despite the use of specialized equipment.  Viewers with knowledge of either Olympic sport will easily follow the Paralympic version.  The countries favored to win gold in both sports should also seem familiar: the United States and Canada are favorites in sledge hockey, with Team USA defending its 2010 gold medal, and Russia is predicted to reach the podium often in Nordic skiing and biathlon.

Although Paralympic sports can seem foreign to fans of the Olympics, the spirit of the Games remains the same.  Top athletes will compete in Sochi to be crowned as the very best in their respective disciplines.  Team USA has found great success in these events in the past and looks to continue its success in 2014.  

About the Author: Daniel Thomas serves at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia.

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