Able to Compete

By Emily Gold / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
Athletes with disabilities are not treated like other athletes, laments Eli Wolff ’00. They are grouped by their disability instead of their skill level, he says, into teams that serve social rather than of athletic needs. As a result, team leaders are trained in rehabilitation, not sports management, and their stories are told in the lifestyle sections of newspapers, not on the sports pages.

“It’s not being organized by ability, it’s being organized by disability,” says Wolff, a sociology and organizational behavior and management major who suffered a stroke at age two that left him partially paralyzed on his left side.

To solve the disparity, Wolff says, the groups governed by the U.S. Olympic Committee ­ such as U.S. Soccer and U.S. Skiing ­ must open their doors to disabled players. (Currently, disabled athletes are served only by such disability-specific groups as the Special Olympics and the U.S. Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association.) For example, Wolff wants all U.S. Soccer employees, from marketing strategists to event planners, to devote time to disabled athletics. Only through such an arrangement, he says, can disabled athletes gain the kind of legitimacy, resources, and exposure enjoyed by athletes without disabilities.

Wolff has been interested in disabled sports ever since high school, when he started playing soccer with other people with disabilities. He now trains with the Brown varsity soccer team and plays on the U.S. National Soccer Team for the Disabled. During his junior year, Wolff authored a report on how sports groups organized around specific disabilities are managed. Now he is using U.S. Soccer as a case study for a senior thesis on integrating these groups into mainstream sports.

The sporting world is intrigued, but not yet convinced. At Wolff’s urging, U.S. Soccer hosted a meeting with disabled athletes this winter and has started a committee on disabled soccer. Wolff also presented his ideas to the first International Conference on Sport for the Disabled, which was held last summer in Germany. Wolff predicts that, if national groups follow his lead, athletics will improve not only for disabled athletes, but for everybody. “It will change the way we all think about sport and who’s included,” he says.

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March / April 2000