Widespread enthusiasm for the 2015 Parapan Am Games is proof of parasport competitors’ athleticism and tenacity, alumna Joanne Berdan told a University of Toronto reception at City Hall on August 10.
“I was involved with parasport at a time when it required an explanation,” Berdan said. “The term ‘Paralympian’ is now a known part of our vernacular that no longer needs defining and to me that is so exciting.”
Berdan was known as Joanne Bouw when she was a student (she graduated in 1986) and when she earned eight gold medals in track and field over the course of four Paralympic summer games from 1984 to 1992. The world records she set in javelin, shot put and discus throw for athletes with cerebral palsy stood for 12 years – until the Paralympic games in 2004. Last May, Berdan became the first parasport athlete inducted into the University of Toronto Sports Hall of Fame.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” she said, referencing a famous Nelson Mandela quote on the ability of athletics to break down racial barriers. “I believe that sport also breaks down disability barriers,” Berdan added.
“So, while you watch our athletes compete, please see the speed and fluidity of our swimmers in the pool, not the wheelchair nor the artificial limb they left on the pool deck, because our swimmers are paratough.”
Berdan spoke at the U of T reception for the Parapan Am Games at Toronto City Hall, before an audience that included dozens of U of T staff, faculty, alumni and Parapan volunteers, as well as consuls general from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Trinidad & Tobago, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and the United States.
“Clearly something extraordinary is going on and I believe it’s an understanding that accessibility is a mindset that changes impossible to all that is possible,” said Angela Hildyard, U of T's vice-president, human resources and equity.
(Above: Pan Am/Parapan Am Games chair David Peterson speaks with U of T students at the reception
Hildyard noted the impressive size and scope of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games as being the largest international multi-sport event in Canada’s history – and the first to be fully integrated and accessible.
She highlighted that with approximately 16,000 athletes and a record 28 countries competing in 15 sports, this is also the largest Parapan Am Games yet.
“An impressive series of multicultural events from music to food to art and dance has seized our campuses and our region, adding to Toronto’s international reputation for inclusivity, energy, excitement and opportunity,” said Hildyard. “It’s all part of this city’s amazing atmosphere and a powerful transformation of cultural attitudes.”
The University provided a home for many Parapan events – with the Scarborough campus hosting swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair tennis while the downtown campus hosting field hockey, football 5-a-side and 7-a-side and archery – and Pan Am events. As a result, Hildyard said, the Games have strengthened a “mutually-enriching relationship between the University of Toronto and the Toronto region.”
David Onley, U of T's Special Ambassador to the Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, said the success of the Games is the result of years of planning and partnerships across the GTA. He celebrated the multitude of volunteers, including “University of Toronto staff, students, faculty and alumni of every description.”
Onley said he threw his agreement behind commentator speculation that the Games, even as they continue, have already proved to be a success. He described the event as embodying the values of athleticism, competition, collegiality, inclusiveness as well as the spirit of camaraderie.
To that point, Onley reflected on his experience watching one of the Parapan swimming competitions where a last-placed athlete finished a full lap and a half behind the other competitors – and yet received a standing ovation when he reached the final marker.
“Minor detail, he didn’t have any legs. He swam the whole race just with arm strength,” said Onley.
“This is an indication of the impact that Parapan has on people.”
(Above: sibling musical group DEYSofficial, including UTSC students, perform their original song at the U of T Parapan Am reception.) (Read more about DEYSofficial and watch a video of the Pan Am/Parapan Am song they composed by clicking through to the end of this Pan Am highlights story.)
Onley added that the Parapan games were conceived for exactly this purpose, “bringing people of the Americas together in fellowship, in friendly competition at the highest level,” and to help the world see “absolutely amazing athletes who just happen to have a disability.”
“I believe we are at a kind of tipping point. When we watch high-level parasport competitions we see awe-inspiring athletic performance. The reality of the disability comes afterward,” said Onley.
“And that’s ultimately the goal of all social and government policy relating to accessibility: to see the ability of the person and take the disability as just another aspect of their personal characteristics alongside such things as hair colour and eye colour.”