“Oh, is that like the Special Olympics?” This is often the response I hear when I tell people that the Paralympics is the “parallel” Olympics that takes place after the “regular” Olympics (if one can refer to any elite sports event as “regular”). “No,” I respond, trying to hide my annoyance. “The Special Olympics is for athletes with mental disabilities and the Paralympics is for physically challenged athletes.”
Whenever this statement comes out of my mouth I feel like a terrible fraud. Why? Because this conversation often happens just after someone has asked me “What’s the matter with you?” in reference to my prosthetic leg, a question I am asked most often a) in line at the coffee bar; b) at the gym; and c) in an elevator. This question (which presumes a standard of bodily normalcy from the get-go) is accompanied by a slow, almost un-self-consciousness scan of my body from head to toe. I feel exposed and fraudulent because a) I don’t want people to think I have a mental disability, which makes me feel ashamed of myself; b) I really want to say “crippled” athletes but am afraid of offending someone’s semantic sensibilities; and c) I am athletic, and although my efforts are often Olympic, I am no Olympian; however, when the body scan results in a compliment, I’m pleased. And so it is that during the time of the Olympics, when all small talk seems to focus on what happened on THE balance beam or in THE pool, I find myself knee-deep in a philosophical mess with interesting sociological implications.