Charlie Swinbourne: UK Sport’s treatment of Britain’s Deaflympics athletes is a disgrace

Posted on September 2, 2017

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Excuse the pun, but you may not have heard that the 2017 Summer Deaflympics begin today, with Deaf athletes from all over the world, including 63 from the DeaflympicsGB team, convening in Samsun, Turkey.

And it’s not only publicity and media coverage that the team are lacking, it’s also funds.

Remarkably, deaf athletes get no government support at all, even though UK Sport are investing up to £345 million in the training of Olympic and Paralympic athletes for the Tokyo 2020 cycle, with Special Olympics GB being given £2 million in 2015.

What this means is that before every Summer or Winter Deaflympics, our deaf athletes (with the exception of four tennis players funded by the Tennis Foundation) are not only tasked with training to their very highest level, they’re also forced to get out the begging bowl and raise money in order to represent their country at the games.

Yet the funding they need is miniscule compared to the huge funds given to the Olympic, Paralympic or Special Olympic athletes. Each DeaflympicsGB athlete needs just £2050 to attend the games – a total cost of £175,000. That amounts to just 0.05% of the funding for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

The funding challenge is acute for team sports in particular, due to the number of players in the squad. The men’s and women’s football teams were faced with raising £125,000 and they were only saved by former footballer and pundit Gary Neville, who personally paid the team’s £20,000 deposit in late October.  Neville’s donation (and quite possibly this tweet) finally spurred the FA into action, who announced just weeks later that they’d pay an additional £40,000 to support the teams.

It’s great that Gary Neville has become a supporter of deaf footballers, but deaf athletes really shouldn’t have to depend on charity to do what able-bodied and disabled athletes get to do with government funding.

In what way is it right to say that the only type of athlete who doesn’t get government funding is a deaf athlete?

The irony of deaf athletes having to raise their own funds is that these are athletes who already face discrimination in everyday life. They are less likely to have their own funds because of significant barriers in employment, and raising money is more difficult because many need assistance to communicate with non-deaf people, with a lot of fundraising going on using social media.

Some people question the purpose of the Deaflympics when a tiny number deaf athletes have managed to take part in the Olympics or Paralympics. But communication barriers and lack of deaf awareness at grass roots level means that sport participation rates among deaf people is under 10%, compared to nearly 40% among able-bodied people. If you can’t make a start in sport, how do you progress to elite level?

UK Deaf Sports’ Executive Chair Piers Martin told me:  “It is the mainstream sports community that hinders progress of a deaf athletes – it is not the deafness itself but rather communication issues. If a deaf runner, swimmer, golfer or football player cannot hear a coach or are treated differently, then they do not have the same opportunity to achieve. The Deaflympics gives those athletes a pinnacle to aim for.”

The British former head of the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf (ICSD) Craig Crowley added: “Within the Deaf and Sporting sector, many athletes and their supporters are absolutely dismayed and disgusted by the refusal to recognise this group of elite DeaflympicsGB athletes.  These athletes receive zero funding from the Government. Why is this? Why is this still allowed?”

UK Sport stopped funding deaf sport nearly 10 years ago now, in 2008, when they gave just £42,000 per year. This means we are approaching having a generation of deaf athletes have had to fund themselves, often competing against athletes from other countries who are far better funded.

That our athletes have come home with medals to inspire their local deaf communities and act as role models for young deaf children is something that we should all – deaf or not – be really proud of.

We can only hope that UK Sport wakes up, and that the next generation of deaf athletes are treated with the kind of respect that our deaf athletes don’t currently receive. 

Read more of Charlie’s articles here.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter and filmmaker. Both episodes of his new sketch comedy in BSL, Deaf Funny, can be seen on the BSL Zone website

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne. 

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