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Deaflympics: Deaf athletes get set - but who is watching the 'Silent Games'?

Deaflympics begins in Bulgaria, but suffers from lack of funding and media attention
  • @iburrell

They call them the Silent Games and, judging by the lack of media fanfare ahead of today's opening ceremony, it’s an apt description.

The 44th Deaflympics, one of the longest-standing competitions in international sport, commences in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Friday.

But much as the 49 competitors from Team GB will feel pride in representing their country, their satisfaction is tempered by the knowledge that their sporting platform is the poor relation of the Paralympics – an event from which they are excluded because there is no deaf category.

This is in marked contrast to the Sainsbury’s Paralympic Anniversary Games this Sunday, which will enjoy two and a half hours of coverage on Channel 4 as wheelchair racer David Weir and other stars of London 2012 return to the Olympic Stadium.

“We are not getting the recognition from our own government in the UK in the same way that our Paralympic athletes are,” said Stuart Harrison, vice chair of UK Deaf Sport, speaking from Sofia with the help of an interpreter.

“There’s this assumption that the Paralympics is inclusive of all disabilities when it is not. We have the deaf Olympics but it’s not seen as worthy of funding – yet our disabled athletes face equally challenging lifestyles.”

In almost all cases, the British competitors at the “Deaflympics” have paid for their trips to Eastern Europe by raising money from family and friends. Mr Harrison pointed out that Team GB was competing against a 5,000-strong contingent of fully-funded Russian athletes.

“In my view the Paralympics have been very good in thinking about how they market themselves,” said Mr Harrison. “The television coverage has been about the car crashes suffered by some athletes and the emotional impact of that. But we [deaf athletes] are a hidden disability.”

The first “International Silent Games” were held in Paris in 1924, creating the second oldest multisport and cultural festival in the world (after the Olympics). The first Paralympics to take place away from their Stoke Mandeville hospital birthplace was held in Rome in 1960. During the 1980s, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) attempted to bring the various games under a single umbrella but the governing bodies for paralympic and deaf sport were unable to reach agreements over such things as the use of interpreters for competitors without hearing.

The Paralympics was made part of the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and since 2000 have been funded through the IOC. Meanwhile deaf sport struggles on alone.

After London was awarded the Olympics in 2008, UK Deaf Sport lost its £42,000 annual grant from UK Sport as money was allocated to funding the showcase event. Team GB travelled to the Deaflympics in Taiwan in 2009 without any lottery funding at all. Although Mr Harrison welcomes the new £134,000 annual funding from Sport England for talent development, this is not money that can be spent on taking the elite competitors to Sofia.

All of which adds to the pressure on British medal hopes such as the Cumbrian hammer thrower Bethan Lishman, 29, the British team captain. She complained that deaf athletes “really don’t get financial support”.

One British competitor, the Surrey-based shooter Rob Lowe, had difficulty training after shooting clubs refused to accept him as a member on the grounds that it might compromise their health and safety regulations.

Another star of Team GB, the Southampton runner Melanie Jewett,  said, “Safety can be an issue and you have to be super aware of cars, cyclists, other pedestrians and even other runners coming up a bit close behind” .

Jewett is also participating in the 10,000m. “It would be great if deaf sport got the same support and publicity as the Olympic and Paralympic games last year; however, it is fairly unknown despite the games starting in 1924,” she said.

“So many people have asked me if the Deaflympics is going to be on TV so they can watch me live, and unfortunately I have to say no.”

The Welsh cyclist Tom Smith, 26, has been active in the sport since the age of nine. He set up Great Britain Deaf Cycling in 2007.

The cyclist said it was “a great shame” that deaf sport was not better supported in Britain. “The Deaflympics have been around longer than the Paralympics, and deaf athletes work just as hard,” he said.

Going for gold: Stars of team GB

John Ruddy, from Glasgow


The European bronze medallist and the UK Deaf record holder over 100m (10.9 seconds) and 200m (22.23 seconds), he hopes for gold in Sofia over both distances.

Bethan Lishman, from Brigham, Cumbria

Hammer thrower

Lishman is ranked number four in the world. She attended the last Deaflympics in Taiwan but had to take out a bank loan to fund her trip.

Tom Smith,  from Cardiff


Youth Commonwealth Games bronze medallist in mainstream cycling.

Melanie Jewett, from Southampton

Long-distance runner

A veteran of 58 marathons, Jewett has already landed a bronze medal in that event, which took place ahead of the opening ceremony.