Lawsuit vs. USOC puts Paralympians in tough spot
COLORADO SPRINGS – The decision by three Paralympic athletes to file a federal discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) on Monday has placed local Paralympic coaches in a compromising position.
The complaint, filed by track and field athletes, says the USOC gives better benefits to Olympic athletes and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Coaches with the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, which trains and races in Summit County, said the funding they receive is better than any country in the world, but they understand the complaint.
“Pretty much, (the Paralympians) are exactly right,” said Vail’s John Cole, alpine coach for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. “This kind of behavior has gone on too long by the USOC. The Paralympic committee has known this has been going on and has been doing its best to fight this.”
Cole, who coached able-bodied athletes for years, added that the USOC has extended several courtesies to disabled athletes, including the use of facilities in Colorado Springs and funding for travel to the Paralympics in places such as Japan and France.
USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said the organization increased funding for Paralympians by 100 percent to $15 million for 2001-2004. A U.S. Paralympic Committee spokesperson refused comment.
The complaint, filed by Scott Hollenbeck of Atlanta, Tony Inguez of Aurora, Ill., and Jacob Heiveil of Bothell, Wash., compares the money awarded to Olympic and Paralympic athletes. In 2002, the USOC gave gold medalists $25,000, while Paralympian gold medalists received $2,500. Prior to 2002, Paralympians received nothing for winning a medal.
The prospect of the debate being over money, however, angers some Paralympic coaches.
“All the athletes on our team are thankful for what they get,” said Frisco’s Jon Kreamelmeyer, head coach of the U.S. Disabled Cross Country Team, which competes in the able-bodied national championships. “Speaking from the skiing side, all my athletes are just happy to be part of the program. They’re not whiners.”
For disabled alpine skiers, the chance to compete on the World Cup has a large price tag. Equipment, such as mono-skis and chairs, can cost up to $15,000, while skis for able-bodied athletes cost around $1,000.
“I would love to see this changed,” said Sandy Metzger, program director for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. Metzger lives in Breckenridge. “The subject of this is really tough, though. We have things good. Of course we’d like more, but where’s the line?”
The disabled team receives 20 percent of its funding from the U.S. Paralympic Committee, under the USOC, and the U.S. Ski Team, which pays the salary of Paralympic coaches. Paralympic ski teams receive about 50 percent of its funding from Skitam, a cable company that holds a fundraiser in Vail in the winter.
The rest, Metzger said, comes from private sponsorships, which are more difficult to receive as a disabled athlete.
“A solid third of our team is struggling to make ends meet because they don’t have a sponsor,” Cole said. “The jobs aren’t out there for disabled folks like able-bodied folks. They’re supposed to be, but that just isn’t the case.”
Cole noted that one team member, who designs disabled ski equipment, can’t sponsor any athletes because it is such a limited market.
The main argument against equal funding, the USOC has said, revolved around the fact that its focus is on Olympic athletes.
Kreamelmeyer says that logic is unfair.
“They can’t make that judgment (that one is more talented than the other),” Kreamelmeyer said. “The realistic scale is, yes, these disabled athletes can (compete on an equal scale), which blows you away.”
Brian McKeever, a Canadian Nordic skier, finished fourth in the Canadian Nordic National Championships last year, open to able and disabled athletes, Kreamelmeyer said.
Last year, the U.S. Disabled Team finished second in the world championships for the first time since the International Federation of Skiing began scoring disabled events. The previous four years, the U.S. Team finished first.
In the end, Kreamelmeyer said, his team would take any help it can get, but is thankful to both the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and the USOC for its financial support.
Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 668-3998 ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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