More than two decades have passed since I wheeled onto the track and heard the cheers of the crowd in Los Angeles at the Olympic Games.
It was 1984 and eight of us were participating in what was the first ever wheelchair sport demonstration.
My dream back then was that one day our athletes with a Disability would have equal recognition. Today, as Canada’s best are competing at the 9th Paralympic Winter Games, that dream remains unfulfilled.
My challenge to Canadians is to see our team and indeed all the participants recognized as athletes first.
The 33 athletes who make up Canada’s Paralympic team in Turin represent the best in the world in alpine and Nordic skiing, sledge hockey and curling.
Their personal sacrifice to get to Turin is no less onerous than that of elite athletes like Cindy Klassen, who collected a fistful of precious medals just a few weeks ago as the entire world applauded.
In the Paralympic Games, athletes like Shawn Matheson, a sledge-hockey player who was born in New Brunswick, will be flying down the ice at high speeds in their pursuit of excellence. It takes years of commitment, thousands of hours of practice, and often the ability to endure great personal pain to get there.
All of our athletes in Turin, including those with a disability, deserve our attention, excitement and admiration.
Sport at the Olympic level is about striving for an ideal. It is the pursuit of perfection. In my view, sport is also a mirror of society.
At one time, people with spinal cord injury and related disabilities weren’t considered to be serious athletes. But after watching our sledge hockey team perform, everyone will agree that our athletes with a disability are world-class.
In many ways, our acceptance of our athletes with a disability has broader socio-cultural implications, reflecting our acceptance of people with a disability in the offices, factories and boardrooms of our nation.
Certainly more must be done before true equality is achieved. However, great strides have been made.
We will have an unprecedented opportunity to burst through these remaining barriers once and for all in 2010.
The whole world will be watching Canada when we host the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
Let’s use the opportunity to create a model unique to Canada, one that bridges the Olympics and the Paralympics and reflects a society that is inclusive of all its citizens. We can demonstrate our commitment to people with spinal cord injury and related disabilities to include them in society fully, as equals.
When I participated in Los Angeles, I wanted to prove to myself and to the world that being in a wheelchair would not limit my ability to achieve my athletic goals.
Today, our Paralympic athletes will once again prove that anything is possible when you believe in a dream.
When our Paralympic athletes capture medals in Turin, I would urge all Canadians to celebrate their achievements with the same kind of enthusiasm afforded to Cindy Klassen and others a few weeks ago.
Then, let’s begin building a truly Canadian model of inclusiveness for 2010 which ensures that the Games and the benefits of hosting them are applied equally to all our athletes.
Rick Hansen is president and CEO of the Rick Hansen Man in Motion Foundation. Beginning in the spring of 1985, Mr. Hansen wheeled around the globe to raise awareness and funds for spinal cord injury.