AURORA, Colo. (AP) – The executive committee of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has promised to find funding for disabled athletes, has stopped short of requiring national governing bodies to embrace disabled programs.
Responding to a mandate from the Amateur Sports Act, the executive committee met for more than six hours Monday to discuss the integration of disabled sports into its programs for able-bodied athletes.
At issue is “vertical integration,” which would transfer elite disabled athletes from the organizations that now govern them _ disabled sports organizations _ to the national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee able-bodied athletes in those sports, such as USA Swimming.
Paralympians believe vertical integration makes them feel more a part of their particular sport.
The USOC supports about 20,000 elite disabled athletes.
“Our committee voted today to hire a director of Paralympic fund-raising, specifically addressing new sources of income,” USOC president Bill Hybl said. “In no way as we move forward with the Paralympic movement will we be taking funding away from our Olympic athletes, nor will be taking funding from the national governing bodies and placing it in disabled or Paralympic programs.”
USOC officials pointed out that funding for disabled games has increased from $1.7 million in the 1993-96 quadrennial period to $3.2 million in the current quadrennial, but acknowledged that improvements for the disabled haven’t come fast enough.
Under the Amateur Sports Act, updated in 1998, it becomes the “first priority” of the USOC to merge Paralympic sports with existing able-bodied NGBs.
The executive committee, however, took no official stance on how the 45 NGBs should handle disabled programs, leaving it up to the NGBs to address the issue in their own way. Many of the NGBs are concerned about funding and liability issues.
“Each NGB has to make decisions of how to provide programming,” said Dale Neuburger, chairman of the NGB Council. “Each NGB will evaluate what its role will be in dealing with disabled athletes, and it will vary a great deal across the board.”
Earlier, the panel heard from 10 speakers, including some disabled athletes.
Charlie Huebner, executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, said his organization is “close to getting true integration of all of our athletes. They’re getting quality coaching and consistent training.”
Huebner’s group works with USA Track and Field, sending its blind athletes to the USATF’s meets, saving the cost of having to hire officials and stage its own meets. It borrows coaches from other NGBs, such as judo, to coach its blind athletes.
Disabled swimmer Jason Wening urged the USOC panel to “do what is right and vertically integrate us. That’s the best thing. The easy thing to do would be to create a separate Paralympic sports organization, cram us all in and sort of out of the way so we won’t be a nuisance to NGBs.”
Two speakers, however, argued against inclusion.
Chuck Wielgus, executive director of U.S. Swimming, insisted he was echoing the stance of many NGBs when he said, “Many of us are scared, scared that by fulfilling this obligation to Paralympic sports under the current Amateur Sports Act, the USOC will see severe and damaging impact to the resources, funding and organizational focus of Olympic and Pan-American sports federations.”
Wielgus said his group “is in the business of Olympic swimming. We do not have, nor do we want, jurisdiction over all aquatic disciplines.”
Bill Marolt, chief executive officer of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, said his organization is going ahead with plans to divorce itself from the disabled ski program, although he promised to help set up the new group.
“One of our concerns with vertical integration is one model doesn’t fit all,” Marolt said. “Wrestlers or swimmers might be able to integrate, but with our athletes _ except in ccross country _ it doesn’t happen. They can’t train with the able-bodied.
“We’ve brought disabled skiing up to its current level. Now we need a separate organization to address their needs.” Besides the Amateur Sports Act mandate, the USOC was the target in October of an $11 million lawsuit filed by Mark Shepherd, manager of the USOC’s Disabled Sports Services. In a 23-count complaint, Shepherd said he did not receive the same staff, budget or pay as other senior Olympic officials with similar responsibilities, and he said programs for disabled athletes receive less funding.–JOHN MOSSMAN AP Sports Writer