The countdown to the Olympics and Paralympics this summer feels like a bittersweet moment for me.
Time has passed quickly since I heard the news in 2005 that the Olympics & Paralympics had been awarded to London in 2012. I recall seeing Dame Kelly Holmes on TV news, cheering punching the air on top of the stage in Trafalgar Square seven years ago in London, and I suddenly dreamed that Deaflympics would at last get some recognition too now that London would host the next Olympics & Paralympics after Beijing 2008.
This was an exciting time for UK Deaf Sport, especially when it was some six months after we won 10 medals at the Melbourne Deaflympics and the GB Deaf Team returned triumphant with World & Deaflympic champions in Men’s & Women’s Football, Women’s Hammer Throw, Women’s Swimming and Women’s 800 metres…
How wrong I was.
In 2008, UK Sport declared that only the Olympics and Paralympics would figure in its next seven year funded strategy steered by Baroness Sue Campbell. She and the UK Sport Board decided the Deaflympics would not feature in its plans and suddenly stopped funding UK Deaf Sport.
Regrettably we had to take UK Sport to UK Sport Resolution. Unfortunately we lost and due to financial capacity, we could not afford to appeal.
However, thanks to generous donors we managed to scrape enough money to send 100 athletes to the prestigious Taipei Deaflympics in 2009 and once again came home with 10 medals.
At these games I decided to stand for the Presidency of the International Committee of Sport for the Deaf (ICSD) and was successful in the ballot.
I informed the British Olympic Association (BOA) and UK Sport’s International Development Department of my position and the importance for me as a UK citizen to be given some guidance and support. UK Sport provides a full programme of support to British sports leaders who work internationally through training, seminars and so forth. Yet, as the British representative of the sporting aspirations of 70 million Deaf people around the world, meeting regularly with the IOC President, IOC members and International Federation Presidents, I have yet to receive even so much as a warm word.
The Department of Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), meanwhile, was not even aware of my existence as the elected President of an International Sport Federation, the oldest disability sports federation which has been in existence since 1924 – prior to the IPC whose roots go back as far as 1948.
Despite all this I still applaud the success of the UK for organising the London Games with this resting upon the shoulders of Seb Coe, Paul Deighton and Chris Holmes, the leaders of The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 (LOCOG), who have quite simply done a great job in bringing these Games together under difficult circumstances.
I did ask LOCOG to see what might be done to showcase Deaf Sport, but was not met with any response. I also used my position to build a positive relationship with IPC President (Sir Philip Craven MBE) and at his insistence I helped to resolve a sovereignty issue involving France and the relationship between Disability Sport and Deaf Sport.
I inherited ICSD as an insular and protectionist organisation with no real aim or strategy. I decided to push through our first ever Strategic Plan in April 2010 to make ICSD more focused and open to opportunities for Deaf athletes’ visibility. This was met with positive acclaim by IOC and I helped to repair relations with the IOC thus building a closer relationship.
ICSD President Craig Crowley with IOC President, Jaques Rogge in 2010.
Unfortunately we were rocked with the cancellation of the Winter Deaflympics 2011 in Slovakia, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada and the Summer Deaflympics in 2013 in Athens, Greece – all accepted as hosts without proper Government support or contracts.
Toiling in obscurity, under the shadow of the Paralympics, has been hard going in recent years. It is worth noting that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has the means to bring in new sports and new countries, but no mechanism to bring in a new disability.
Bulgaria has come to the rescue and pledged its intention to hold the Summer Deaflympics for July- August 2013. Turkey will host our Summer Deaflympics in 2017. And, as I write, some 700 athletes from nearly 40 countries are preparing to take part in two World Deaf Championships in Football & Athletics.
However, as stated previously the fact that the UK is hosting the Olympics & Paralympics gives me mixed feelings of excitement, sadness, concern and frustration to say the least.
Most of the Deaflympic Games I have been involved in, witnessed and participated in as an athlete going back to my first in 1985 have always been special. However, what would be even more special is if we could have seen Deaf athletes featuring in the Olympics & Paralympics here in London.
With the Chief Executive of ICSD, Mark Cooper (formerly Dolley) – an ex-Head of Communications for the Olympic Games at the IOC – we have spent our time picking up the pieces and starting to re-build a relationship and confidence with the likes of IOC members, International Sport Federations as well as building closer relations and increasing better awareness with National Deaf Sport Federations and members. We acknowledged and now embrace the importance of partners, friends, spectators, athletes and supporters in the world of media, TV and sponsorship.
Taipei Stadium, Deaflympics 2009
We also acknowledged that athletes’ visibility is even more important and we need to gather momentum too. The London Games is getting an influx of spectators and paying TV/media/public in billions from all over the world to witness both Games which is truly fantastic for Olympic & Paralympic athletes. We had a similar effect in Taipei for Deaflympics 2009 which was shown in most of the Asian world. We could do even more if there was the right (or even better, the same) media/TV/online companies coming forward to broadcast Deaf Sport worldwide as well.
I believe London 2012 and its partners have done a brilliant job in building awareness especially for the Paralympics which will be a fantastic spectacle, yet many Deaf athletes will still say ‘where is our recognition?’
I sincerely hope Deaf Sport will be the surprise of the Rio Olympics/Paralympics 2016 as I believe the only way to gain visibility for Deaf athletes is to work alongside the Olympics & Paralympics. That way we can gain prominence, recognition and acceptance of Deaf athletes which will give ICSD a far greater recognition than ever before. This will also enhance maximum exposure on our planned Deaflympic Games in Ankara, Turkey, in 2017.
Most of the International Sport Federations (IF’s) such as FIFA (Football), FINA (Swimming), FIBA (Basketball), have already strongly welcomed greater collaboration with Deaf Sport so that is why ICSD needs to work to make it a reality for Deaf athletes. It is very much two- way process, as IF’s will display their technical expertise & support for our World Deaf Championships. This should reverberate onto National Sport Federations (or National Governing Bodies of Sport – NGB) to work with the likes of UK Deaf Sport in collaboration with the likes of the British Paralympic Association.
The Rio 2016 Games could be an increasingly important landmark for the Deaflympic Movement in the same way that the first ever World Silent Games in 1924 were, but this time with Deaf athletes enjoying equality of opportunity, no longer consigned to a second-rate experience.
We need comprehensive media coverage of Deaf athletes to increase visibility and the more coverage we get, the better the recognition of Deaf Sport will be all over the world!
Very much like the Olympics & Paralympics, Deaflympics does have the vision of inspiring its athletes and exciting the world. We strive to achieve this by promoting positive perceptions of Deaf Sport on a global level by demonstrating what can be achieved by Deaf athletes themselves.
This is why I applaud the past and present successes of our prominent athletes such as:
Terence Parkin (South Africa)
Terence now sits on our ICSD Athletes Commission as Co-Chair and has been an excellent ambassador having competed in the Olympics, Commonwealth & Deaflympic Games.
Reed Gershwind (USA)
Reed is our new ICSD Technical Sport Commission Chair, is himself a highly decorated & respected Deaflympian with over 13 Gold medals in swimming in the previous five Summer Deaflympics.
Despite the rough patch that Deaf Sport is going through together with prominent athletes – past or present – I will not give up on our dream of seeing the Deaflympics finally achieving its ambition so I hope the London Olympic & Paralympic Games legacy will help pave the way, and be the catalyst for future change for Deaf Sport as a whole.
Finally, as a proud Briton, I look forward to welcoming the athletes from all over the world to London and I will definitely cheer them on when competing in both the Olympics and Paralympics this summer – whilst at the same time striving for the visibility of our Deaf athletes!
Craig Crowley is the Ex-Chair of UK Deaf Sport 2003-2006 and the President of International Committee of Sport for the Deaf (ICSD) 2009 – present.