Friday, 14 September 2012


It has been more than a week since the Paralympics Games has ended. Both the opening and closing ceremonies were attended to with great fanfare. But during the games, I struggled to find out about more deaf competitors as the Paralympics have different categories but none for the deaf. Which brings us to the topic: Deaflympics.

Here is an article from the Guardian website which outlines the fact that the Deaflympics existed long before the Paralympics (and a very interesting history)...

"There are many categories in the Paralympics, but none is set aside for deaf competitors. Deaf athletes can (and do) take part in the Olympics but for many the biggest sporting event in the world will take place next year – the 22nd Deaflympics in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Founded in Paris in 1924 as the International Silent Games, the event became truly international in 1935 when London hosted and the USA sent its first team – of two athletes – to join the Europeans. By the time the Stoke Mandeville Games started in 1948, plans were already afoot for a Winter Games for the Deaf (these were held for the first time in Seefeld, Austria, in 1949).

A century (and more) of deaf sport

The history of deaf sport goes back even further, as several European countries boasted deaf sports organisations by the late 19th century. In the UK the first deaf sports club was probably the Glasgow Deaf and Dumb Football Club, which was founded in 1871 (making it older than both Rangers and Celtic)

Across the channel the first French deaf sports club appeared in 1899 – an organisation for cyclists only. Then came a Parisian athletics club in 1911 and a nationwide athletic federation in 1918 (Fédération Sportive des Sourds-Muets de France). This federation hosted the first international deaf football match – France vs Belgium – in Paris in 1922. (There are some delightful photos of the natty deaf football uniforms on the current Commission Fédérale de Football des Sourds website).

The Glasgow Deaf and Dumb Football Club, the many French organisations, and the Stoke Mandeville Games illustrate three entirely different reasons to start separate deaf sports organisations: for charity, for culture, for cure. The fact that the French model of the "silent sportsman" was at the core of the Deaflympics is one reason why it has not merged with either the Olympics or Paralympics.

Charity, culture, cure

The Glasgow club was an initiative of the Glasgow Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, one of many philanthropic organisations set up by Victorians concerned about the poor and disadvantaged. Institutions and schools for the "deaf and dumb" were often run by religious organisations, and sports and exercise were introduced as part of an ideal of healthy "muscular Christianity" – the idea that physical and spiritual development were both necessary for a good life (as well as being a useful distraction from sexual urges and masturbation, of course).

As most of us following the Paralympics now know, the Stoke Mandeville Games were set up by Ludwig Guttmann to offer hope and physical therapy to injured servicemen, and later expanded dramatically into a site for international sporting excellence for people with a wide range of disabilities.

What makes the French organisations different is that they were founded not by concerned philanthropists or doctors, but by the deaf community itself, by men and women like Reubens Alcais, who was nicknamed the "Pierre de Coubertin of the Deaf" (de Coubertin was the French founder of the modern Olympic movement).

These were not sports for people with "disabilities" who needed charity (or cure), but cultural events where deaf culture could be celebrated, and deaf athletes could socialise. No special rules or conditions were introduced: all the sports in 1924 were conducted according to the standard Olympic rules (with visual rather than aural signals where relevant).

The use of sign language was symbolically very important in the late 19th and early 20th century, as this was a time when medical and social authorities were trying to suppress or eradicate "manualism" in favour of teaching all deaf people to speak and read lips – that is to assimilate into non-deaf society. Special sports events were one way to assert a cultural identity under threat.

As the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf said in 2001:

"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."

The dispute over whether deafness is a culture or a disability is fraught, particularly when it comes to medical interventions such as cochlear implants or fertility treatment.

But whatever your opinion on the matter, it's clear it causes a big headache for deaf sports when it comes to funding. Unless they get access to the money available for disability sport, deaf athletes have to struggle to find sponsorship for their Games. After some financially difficult years, the deaf sporting community have been asking the Paralympics to "showcase" and support deaf sports.

Or maybe the sensible thing to do would be recognise that athletes use many languages, and simply adjust the Olympic regulations to allow for athletes who communicate using signs rather than words?"

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