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Future Directions of the Deaflympics.

On May 16, 2001, the International Olympic Committee met in Lausanne, Switzerland, and voted to approve a request from the Comite International des Sports des Sourds to change the name Deaf World Games to Deaflympics. Previously, the Deaf World Games were called the World Games for the Deaf. With the change to Deaflympics, the International Deaf sport community took a major step towards further recognition of its highest level of competition for deaf athletes. Preparing athletes to compete in these Games is a common goal shared by the 83 national Deaf sport organizations that are members of the Comite International des Sports des Sourds (CISS--International Committee of Sports for the Deaf-- which oversees the Games. This large number of nations appears to bode well for the future of the Deaflympics, especially given the fact that many of these nations are new members of the CISS, suggesting that Deaf(1) sport is enjoying an increase in its popularity.

Moreover, where once CISS member nations were concentrated in Europe, there is now a truly global mixture of nations, as witnessed by the following members--Mongolia Sports Federation of the Deaf Cyprus Deaf Athletic Organization, Swaziland Association of Sports of the Deaf, Organizacion Deportiva de Sordos del Uruguay, Estonia Deaf Sports Union, Bangladesh Deaf Sports Federation, Iceland Deaf Sports Organization, and Deaf Sports Philippines. While these numbers speak clearly to popularity of the world of Deaf sport at the international level, there is increasing evidence that Deaf sport at the grassroots level is not faring as well.

Before moving along, we need to say a word about our sources of information. Both authors have extensive involvement in the world of Deaf sport, which allows us to keep abreast of trends and developments in the field. This contact is important, because the literature on Deaf sport is sparse. What is available in print is mostly found in newspapers and newsmagazines that cater mainly to the Deaf community, including the NAD Broadcaster, Silent News, and DeafNation. Stories in these publications are almost solely devoted to reports of scores, championships, athletic accomplishments, and the like, with virtually no information about the behind the scenes struggles of Deaf sport athletic teams and organizations.

What we have learned from our contact with Deaf sport directors and coaches is that nearly all sports are having a difficult time recruiting new athletes. The problem appears to be lack of contact with deaf athletes at grassroot levels. This raises the question as to whether or not an event such as the Deaflympics can continue to prosper while there is a decline in its traditional means of finding and preparing deaf competitors. Although there is no clear answer to this question, there are several social changes occurring in society and within the Deaf community that directly impact motivations of deaf people to undertake their own sport activities. These factors include the Deaf community's need to assert its sense of self-determination, roles of schools in the education of deaf children, and influence of medical advances on shaping the biodemographic make-up of the Deaf community. These factors and others are the focus of this article's look at the future direction of the Deaflympics.

The Games

The Deaflympics are a quadrennial event with summer and winter Games components. The first Summer Deaflympics were held in Paris in 1924, marking the first time an international competition was held for any group of people with a disability. Nine European countries sent athletes to these Games where competition provided a social context for countries to deliberate about similarities and differences in the welfare of their deaf people. The Games came at a time when society viewed deaf people as being intellectually inferior and linguistically impoverished beings (Moores, 1996). This viewpoint was to persist for another 40 years in North America and still persists in some parts of the world today.

Thus, since their inception, the Games became an ad hoc forum for deaf people to discuss new ways to advance the lives of deaf people all over the world by the mere fact that competitions brought many deaf people together. Given the significance of the Games in promoting the general well-being of deaf people, the CISS has emphasized the necessity of encouraging countries to participate and openly awards the Games to different countries in an effort to help the host country present positive images of deaf people to its national population.

Efforts to expand the number of participating countries have succeeded to the point where over 60 countries, representing six continents, participated at the 1997 Summer Deaflympics in Copenhagen, Denmark. About 2,700 athletes competed in these Games, and a record 28 countries won gold medals (Stewart & Bressler, 1997). Athletes competed in 15 sports--athletics (track and field), badminton, basketball, bowling, cycling, orienteering, shooting, table tennis, team handball, tennis, soccer, swimming, water polo, volleyball, and wrestling.

The first Winter Deaflympics took place in 1949 in Seefeld, Austria. The number of countries participating in the Winter Games is small compared to the Summer Games; about 260 athletes from 18 countries competed at the 1995 Games in Finland (Stewart & Ojalas, 1995). Athletes compete in only three sports at the Winter Games--ice hockey, alpine, and nordic events. Snowboarding was a demonstration sport at the 1999 Deaflympics in Davos, Switzerland. A complete listing of past and future Games follows.

1924 Paris, France
1928 Amsterdam, Holland
1931 Nuremberg, West Germany
1935 London, England
1939 Stockholm, Sweden
1949 Copenhagen, Denmark
1953 Brussels, Belgium
1957 Milan, Italy
1961 Helsinki, Finland
1965 Washington, DC, USA
1969 Belgrade, Yugoslavia
1973 Malmo, Sweden
1977 Bucharest, Romania
1981 Cologne, West Germany
1985 Los Angeles, CA, USA
1989 Christchurch, New Zealand
1993 Sofia, Bulgaria
1997 Copenhagen, Denmark
2001 Rome, Italy
2005 Melborne, Australia


1949 Seefeld, Austria
1953 Oslo, Norway
1955 Oberammergau, West Germany
1959 Montana-Vermala, Switzerland
1963 Are, Sweden
1967 Berchtesgaden, Germany
1971 Abelboden, Switzerland
1975 Lake Placid, NY, USA
1979 Meribel, France
1983 Madonna Di Campiglio, Italy
1987 Oslo, Norway
1991 Banff, Canada
1995 Yllas, Finland
1999 Davos, Switzerland
2003 Sundsvall, Sweden

Factors Impacting the Future of the Deaflympics

The direction the Deaflympics take as they slide into the 21st Century is affected by many factors, ranging from personal ones related to the athlete, to more global ones related to the place of deaf people in society. In particular, these factors change the characteristics of those who will participate in the Games and alter the image of how Deaf sport in general is perceived by those who are not deaf. A discussion of these factors is presented with the following caveat--because records of Deaf sport movements in most countries are minimal or nonexistent, much of what is being predicted here is based on our observations at various Deaflympics and our understanding of the dynamics of Deaf sport as it is in the United States and Canada.

Finding the Elite Deaf Athlete

Anyone who has had the opportunity to attend the Deaflympics over the past two decades would have noticed that characteristics of the average deaf athlete are changing. At one time, an overwhelming number of deaf athletes attended schools for deaf children where many of them were first introduced to sports. These deaf athletes did not compete on non-deaf teams in the general population, and they used sign language as their main means of interpersonal communication. While sign language is not universal, knowledge of it made conversing with people from other countries easier than if some other mode of communication were used, such as speech. This is always noticeable at the Games, where deaf athletes from different countries freely talk to one another in signs, without the assistance of an interpreter. Deaf athletes of yesterday, if not attending a school for deaf children, were typically active members in their local Deaf community, and especially in this community's sport programs. This made them a reservoir of information about their Deaf world which they exchanged at the Games with people from Deaf communities in other parts of the world.

But schools for deaf children are no longer the mainstay for educating deaf children they once were. Deaf children today are increasingly being educated in general education schools along with their non-deaf peers. This trend has been occurring in the United States and Canada for the past 20 years and is also evident in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, and other countries in western Europe. With dwindling numbers of students, it has become difficult for many schools for deaf children to offer a full slate of extracurricular sports. As a result, deaf students attending these schools do not always get exposure to sports necessary to help them develop into elite athletes.

Parallel to this decline in enrollment in schools for deaf children, we have seen dramatic increases in number of students obtaining an education in local public schools. These students comprise a growing breed of deaf athletes, and bring to the Games a different standard of social expectations. Many deaf students in public schools are not exposed to use of sign language and rely instead on oral communication. An athlete is usually the only deaf person on a team or in a sport club. While athletic prowess may earn athletes a spot on a national Deaf team, they hover at the fringe of social interactions occurring at the Games. Without signing skills they lack the means of gainfully interacting with those involved in the governance of Deaf sport at local through international levels. (See Kathleen Ellis' Response to Future Directions of the Deaflympics: A Voice From the Mainstream, page 48, for a perspective of a deaf person growing up in a public school setting with no contact with deaf athletes or the Deaf community.)

There are, of course, some public school programs that incorporate sign communication in their instruction. While deaf students from these schools often know how to sign, their placement in a public school still means their involvement in sports is mainly with hearing peers. Such involvement poses a problem for national Deaf teams which must now find a means of recruiting athletes from a wider population base of students. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many public school programs do not infuse information about the Deaf community into their curriculum for deaf students (Gaustad, 1999). Coaches and physical education teachers, too, are often ignorant of opportunities available for promising deaf athletes, not only at the international level, but also within the local community. These athletes leave school and may spend several years as adults before encountering information about opportunities in Deaf sport. These are the years when they may be at the height of their games.

Concomitant with difficulty in accessing deaf athletes who are enrolled in or are products of the public school system, is the fact that these athletes are desirable because of higher standards of competition they face with hearing athletes with whom they participate and compete (Stewart, McCarthy, & Robinson, 1988; Stewart, Robinson, & McCarthy, 1991). Numbers alone ensure that competition with hearing athletes is stiffer and excellence is usually marked by higher standards than in competitions with only deaf athletes.

Given changes that are occurring in schools, we can predict the trend toward more public school athletes on national Deaf teams will continue. It is also safe to say that accessing these athletes will become less of a problem as national Deaf sport organizations learn to use the internet as a means for informing others about opportunities in the sports they provide. We can expect there will be a growing awareness among coaches in school and community sports, and among physical education teachers, about these opportunities as information about high level competitions such as the Deaflympics become more prevalent because of technological advances facilitating the spread of information through the media and the internet.

Keeping the Games Deaf

Deaf people take much pride in knowing the Deaflympics are of their own doing. The CISS Executive Board consists only of deaf members. Only deaf people are allowed to represent their national Deaf sport organizations at international meetings involving the CISS, including those related to the Deaflympics. All athletes are obviously deaf, in that each must have a minimum of 55 decibel hearing loss in the better ear before being permitted to participate.

Not so obvious is the fact that rules for playing each sport are not altered in any way for 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 exist. 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 communicate in sign language.

But, is pride enough to keep the Games Deaf? CISS has refused to join the International Paralympic Committee on grounds that it does not want to give up its autonomy and have the Deaflympics merged with the Paralympics (Stewart & Ammons, 1994). Moreover, there is growing concern among national Deaf sport governing bodies that hosting the Deaflympics is becoming increasingly more expensive, as is the cost of participating in them. Raising money to offset costs is becoming more difficult, because each year it appears that corporations and households are more heavily canvassed by their communities for sponsorships and charitable donations. In other words, the Games represent an increasing financial burden to the Deaf community that supports them.

Continuing concern for the financial aspect of running the Games has caused some national Deaf sport organizations to push for Deaflympics to become a part of the Paralympics. These organizations want to reduce their responsibilities for organizing and funding the Games. While they admit that control over various aspects of the Games would be lost, they also point out the Paralympics would provide adequate assurance the Games would continue. Furthermore, they harbor no reservations about being associated with other international games for people with disabilities. This push to join the Paralympics is not just coming from the nations with poor financial resources, but also from some deaf people in the United States and Canada who desire increased media exposure the Paralympics could give deaf athletes. It would be interesting to find out if those people who favor deaf people participating in the Paralympics understand there would be a cap on the number of deaf athletes who could participate. If only a limited number of athletes could participate, they might change their minds.

For the Deaflympics to continue to be played the way they have been since their inception in 1924, it is important that key people making decisions about the Games have strong ties to their Deaf communities and embrace the culture these communities spawn. Self-determination is one aspect of this culture (Stewart, 1991). Those deaf people who are against joining the Paralympics want to have the first and final say in all matters relating to the Games. They did not want the Deaflympics in Sydney, Australia, simply because a group of non-deaf people decided that was where Olympics, and hence, Paralympics were going to be held. They want the Games in a country where a group of deaf people have made a winning bid to host the Games.

However, do enough of these kinds of deaf people exist? For now they do. But the push to remain autonomous may weaken as the cultural ties that initially led to formation of the Deaflympics continue to be eroded by educational practices keeping deaf children dispersed over wide geographical areas, away from schools for deaf children where many would be socialized into Deaf sport and other cultural activities relating to the Deaf community.


We acknowledge the possibility that one day our trip to a Deaflympics event might feature a tour of Olympic facilities that days before had been home to the best athletes in the world, some of whom would have been deaf. If this should occur, then we will view this occasion with sadness for the loss of self-determination on the part of the Deaf community. But, we will also understand that at least some aspect of the Deaflympics would be metamorphosing into a new cultural event for the Deaf community, and that as with all Games in the past, sign language will continue to be the linguistic champion of deaf participants. And, that yearning to be with other deaf people will still be a factor in motivating many athletes to participate in the Games in whatever venue they might be held.

Selected References

Gaustad, M.G. (1999). Including the kids across the hall: Collaborative instruction. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4(3), 176-190.

Moores, D.F. (1996). Educating the deaf (4th Ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Stewart, D. (1991). Deaf sport: Images of sports in the Deaf community. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.

Stewart, D., & Ammons, D. (1994). Awakenings: The 1993 World Games for the Deaf. PALAESTRA, 10, 26-31.

Stewart, D., & Bressler, H. (1997). The XVIII World Games for the Deaf: A musical paradox. PALAESTRA, 13 (4), 32-35.

Stewart, D., McCarthy, D., & Robinson, J. (1988). Participation in deaf sport: Characteristics of deaf sport directors. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 5, 233-244.

Stewart, D., & Ojalas, R. (1995). Storm & ice: The XIII World Winter Games for the Deaf. PALAESTRA, 11(4), 35-38.

Stewart, D., Robinson, J, & McCarthy, D. (1991). Participation in Deaf sport: Characteristics of elite Deaf athletes. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 8,136-145.

David A. Stewart is a professor and Director of the Deaf Education program at Michigan State University. He is the Technical Delegate for ice hockey for the Comite International des Sports des Sourds and is an Associate Editor for PALAESTRA. Donalda K. Ammons is a professor at Gallaudet University. She is the Secretary-General for the Comite International des Sports des Sourds and is a Field Editor for PALAESTRA.

RELATED ARTICLE: Response to Future Directions of the Deaflympics--A Voice from The Mainstream

M. Kathleen Ellis

I have been profoundly deaf since the age of four years, and my entire educational career revolved around the mainstreamed setting. Emphasis was placed on oral communication, and I never learned even the simplest form of sign language. In addition, I had no contact with deaf adults or deaf peers, and actually did not meet another deaf individual until my master's degree years. Even though I was deeply involved in sports as an athlete, coach, and administrator, no contact or knowledge was initiated pertaining to Deaf sport until recently.

Since my introduction to Deaf sport, I have learned of the many opportunities available for individuals like myself. Deaf sport serves not only as a forum for socialization among other members of the Deaf community, but also as a basis for deaf children who are products of inclusion to become aware of this whole new world available to them. No one within my family or community had ever heard of Deaf sport; therefore, no introductions were ever made during my growing years. Much of the decline in Deaf sport at the grassroots level could be related to the very few individuals with the knowledge available to introduce deaf children to Deaf sport. Our elite deaf athletes are out there, but it is not as easy as it seems to locate these individuals, especially where the information base related to and opportunity to participate in Deaf sport are nonexistent among their communities, as was the case with mine. Schools for the deaf continue to provide this information as if it were part of the general curriculum, something that should be integrated along with the deaf student. It seems public schools are wasting perfect opportunities to provide their deaf athletes with as many opportunities for participation as possible. But many deaf children and their parents do not learn of these missed opportunities until much later, as in my case, if at all.

The more I learn about Deaf sport, the more I regret not having had the opportunity to participate during my peak athletic years. Even though I just recently became aware of Deaf sporting opportunities, it is shocking to hear that these opportunities may be subject to takeover by the hearing community, or in the worse case scenario, reduction or elimination. The highest commendation is only fitting for those persistent deaf individuals who attempt to keep the Games alive and Deaf. This will obviously be a hard road to continue along, especially with financial considerations of organizing, running, and participating in such an elaborate athletic event.

However, consider some factors that could occur should the Games someday connect with the Paralympics. First, joining with the Paralympics (with which I was familiar long before learning about Deaf sport) would drastically reduce the number of deaf athletes who would be allowed to compete. There is no way that all 2,700 of our best athletes from over 60 countries would be able to participate in these events. The total number of athletes from all disability groups participating in the 1996 Summer Paralympics in Atlanta was approximately 3,000, representing 120 nations. In the 1998 Paralympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, 600 athletes from 31 countries participated. Does this leave enough room for our brightest stars to participate in meaningful competition? Or, does it disallow many athletes who have been working hard for the privilege to represent their countries?

Joining with the Paralympics might also lead to one thing that may be even more damaging to the Deaf community than decreased opportunities for participation at the international level. Individuals who are deaf do not have a disability, but rather a difference in communication. The Paralympics are for individuals with disabilities and, hence, should the Deaflympics join this organization, deaf athletes would be considered to have a disability. Not only would joining the Paralympics remove the Games' autonomy, but also place a label on deaf athletes as being part of the disabled community, as well. While this would not affect me tremendously as it might many other athletes, I feel personally involved because my family tried for years to prevent my being labeled as having a disability. I take great pride in the fact that with my recent learning of sign language I am considered bilingual in many settings. Through this newly learned communication modality, I have gained more insight to personal and professional conversations than ever before. While I am very happy with my ability to communicate verbally, I regret not learning sign language at an earlier age. I also take pride in the fact that I am deaf, not disabled. This is my identity being played with here, as well as that of numerous other deaf individuals.

What would this mean for deaf athletes, especially those who identify within the cultural minority? Does this mean, therefore, that any individual living in the United States whose verbal communication does not use English is considered to have a disability? In many respects, considering a deaf individual as having a disability, rather than a culturally-based communication method, is similar to failing to acknowledge the many different cultures and languages existing within a diverse America.

It is true that planning, organizing, implementing, and participating in athletic events at the international level provide financial hardships not only for the athletes involved, but also for the entire Deaf community. Individuals in the many administrative, coaching, and athletic positions need to step up and spread the word of the existence of the Games to allow for greater awareness between both the Deaf community and the hearing world. This does not decrease the autonomy or pride associated with the Games, but allows for greater support and fundraising opportunities to be posed through more individual awareness.

Who knows what would have happened if I had been introduced to Deaf sport at an early age? I could be a professional in Deaf education teaching my students and others about Deaf sport. Or, I could be a highly involved member of the Deaf community through Deaf sport. Or, I could be exactly where I am now, sitting on the fence separating the Deaf and hearing worlds. My life could be very different or very similar to what it is now. I can only wonder.

M. Kathleen Ellis is an instructor with the departments of Kinesiology and Deaf Education at Michigan State University, where she recently completed her PhD in Kinesiology with major areas in Adapted Physical Education, Pedagogy, and Deaf Education.

(1) This paper follows the convention of using the lower case word deaf to refer to the audiological condition of having a hearing loss. The upper case word Deaf is used to refer to people or entities (such as an organization) associated with the culture of the Deaf community.
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Author:Stewart, David A.; Ellis, M. Kathleen
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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