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What are the Deaflympics?

Emma Emma | 08:08 UK time, Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Laurentia Tan (left) competes in London 2012 Paralympic dressage


Deaf people do not have a specific classification at the Paralympic games and can only compete if they have an additional disability which meets the Paralympic criteria. In an email interview, president of the International Committee of Sport for the Deaf, Craig Crowley MBE, explains the current options for elite athletes with a hearing loss.

What are the Deaflympics?

The Deaflympics are exactly what the name implies: a multi-sport competition for the best deaf athletes from all over the world. Our Games have been held since 1924, when they were first created by deaf people for deaf people. Starting at modest beginnings of 148 athletes from nine countries, the Deaflympics have grown to the 2,493 athletes from 77 countries that took part in Taipei in 2009. Even more are expected in Sofia next year.

At the Deaflympics, as with all deaf sport, visual cues ensure a level playing field. Our races are started with a light. Our games are refereed with flags.

Are deaf athletes permitted to take part in either the Olympic or Paralympic Games?

Craig Crowley MBE

Craig Crowley MBE heads up the International Committee of Sport for the deaf

People with a hearing loss are free to compete at the Olympic Games. In the London 2012 Olympics for example, the US team alone had three deaf people: A new Olympic champion in basketball Tamika Catchings, volleyball player David Smith and diver Chris Colwill.

Since there is currently no unique classification for deaf athletes in the Paralympics, they require an additional disability which meets one of the Paralympic criteria to participate.

Singapore Paralympian dressage rider Laurentia Tan (pictured above) fits the bill. She is deaf and also has cerebral palsy, so she competes as a CP athlete.

What are the difficulties for deaf athletes competing in the Olympics or Paralympics?

Just as you would expect, the issues are around communication: whether it's the starter communicating with the athletes at the beginning of a race, or team-mates making decisions mid-game.

Laurentia Tan, who competes for Singapore but resides in the UK, is accompanied at competitions by a sign language interpreter, which she says has "really made a positive difference to my experience".

Unfortunately, interpreter fees often have to be covered by Laurentia's parents, as she has struggled to get funding or sponsorship to pay for them.

According to UK Deaf Sport, the request for Tan to get accreditation for her qualified sign language interpreter was met with a negative response from London 2012.

And there were communication difficulties for spectators with a hearing loss, who attended the London 2012 Olympics. Plenty of announcements were made in French during the competitions but pitifully few in sign language.

What are the wider issues for the Deaflympics?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) did a deal with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in 2001 to provide equality of opportunity for Paralympic athletes. So Paralympians have access to the same venues, Olympic Village, transportation, technology and so on as the Olympians. Eleven years later, Deaflympians have not been offered the same equality of opportunity.

We strive to provide the best conditions possible for our athletes at our competitions, but national governments often sacrifice support for deaf athletes to favour Olympians and Paralympians. In the UK, the government axed all funding to elite deaf athletes in the name of creating more Olympic and Paralympic medal winners at London 2012.

The IPC has mechanisms for bringing in new sports or new countries, but not for bringing in a new disability. We did ask IPC to have events just for deaf athletes at the London 2012 Paralympics but were rejected.

Equality of opportunity is what deaf people would prefer. Give our athletes the same chances that all the others enjoy. Yes, some of our athletes are good enough to compete against hearing athletes, but that is no reason to deny them the chance to compete against each other on the best possible stage. After all, nobody would suggest the whole Paralympics be cancelled just because Oscar Pistorius was fast enough to qualify for the Olympics.

It is wrong to have left the deaf behind. It is wrong to have deprived deaf children and young people of role models from their own community.

In terms of competitions, the Deaflympics will go on. But we'd also like to see our athletes in other competitions too, like the Commonwealth Games, where athletes with a disability have their own medal events. This will help to raise visibility, hopefully to the point where a few more sports ministers around the world take notice.

And we're working hard to ensure that host cities of the Olympic and Paralympic Games no longer overlook Deaf people, either as athletes or spectators.


  • Comment number 1.

    Amongst some of us so affected, there has been discussion of what Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Olympics would look like. Not spectacular!

    We invented "undressage": the challenging event of who can look the most respectable and intelligent when dressed in scruffy pyjamas etc.. Marked by performance and degree of difficulty (how bad the outfit actually is.)

    Silly, but humour touches on reality.

  • Comment number 2.

    Re: Chris Brown (1), it is all about inspiring people to greater achievement. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome athletes may well have a place in the Paralympics one day and it is daft that the Paralympics and Deaflympics haven't merged yet. The IPC seem to be in the same corrupt situation that the IOC used to be in (and that FIFA still is).

  • Comment number 3.

    Deaf must drop the dogmatic cultural attitude and get down to the sport and making the times required to participate. Some take part in the paraplympics, some in the main event, most neither. Disabled deaf should be in the paralympics, the more able-bodied in the main event. The suggestion of 'special categories' for the deaf is just another way of lobbying for deaf to go it alone again.

  • Comment number 4.

    While deafness causes issues, they can be overcome and in doing so, deaf athletes could enter the Olympics, not the Paralympics.

    It is not beyond us to provide visual communications alongside the current audible ones.

    As for team sports, there is nothing stopping the hearing from using sign language. Indeed, a goal keeper could communicate with his captain at the other end of a football pitch.

  • Comment number 5.

    The Paralympics is about overcoming difficulty in sport - and being deaf does not seem particularly relevant to running round a track. Perhaps a deaf version of the Eurovision Song Contest would be the appropriate solution?

  • Comment number 6.

    @5 wow thats ignorant, I suppose you think deaf people can "see" the gunshot go off to start the race!

  • Comment number 7.

    @6 - Since you brought it up, yes, I expect a deaf person to be able to see the flash and smoke from a gun going off. That's no longer relevant, though, as guns aren't used any more. It's unfortunate if the new systems being used have no visual cues.

  • Comment number 8.

    @5 and @7

    Unbelievably ignorant.

    You are wrong. End of.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    @6 Swimmers in the paralympics, one was deaf and had a flashing light to start, no problem. Deaf sport is run by culture-vultures. If deaf can do anything but hear, why don't they compete ? I think HI will take the onus and by-pass deaf sport, then it is show over for deaflympics as they all migrate away from it.

  • Comment number 11.

    To Farslayer at 2), I understand, appreciate and enjoy the positive aspects of the Paralymics. But we with moderate to severe CFS cannot run, jump, swim, throw... Our events would have to be peculiar (old and new sense).
    My light-hearted point was on the diversity of disability and illness. And that Paralympians represent a partial but only partial aspect of living life positively with such.

  • Comment number 12.

    Please forgive and educate me if this is ignorant. Couldn't deaf people be included in many sports with minimal changes? Is a deaf swimmer or runner be disadvantaged against hearing opponents by starting with a visual cue triggered at the same time as the electronic starting pistol sound? Does e.g. a high-jumper or shot-putter gain much sporting advantage by being able to hear during the event?

  • Comment number 13.

    @jonbly (7). The starter stands behind the athletes so they're reacting purely to the sound, and not trying to anticipate when the gun will go off from the hand movements. And, as you say, the guns are now electronic: the sound comes from a loudspeaker in each competitor's set of starting blocks, so there's almost nothing for a deaf person to see and react to.

  • Comment number 14.

    I have every sympathy with the deaf, but there are very few sports being deaf could be considered a handicap. Running? Have the loudspeaker that is used to start connected to blocks vibration should suffice.
    However can I forward an olympics for the downright lazy and incompetent?

  • Comment number 15.

    I have progressive hearing loss caused by my permanent illness... and severe balance problems, I oft times thought of trying for the paralympics, however, nothing covers my disability as a shooter, which is what I wanted to do, I firmly believe all athletes with disabilities who are able and interested should have the right to compete in the paralympics

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    For races to be fair surely everyone would need to 'start' from the same sensory input, so changing to a vibration or a visible signal for ALL competitors would be a possibility, that would effect a lot of things, reacting to a different stimuli, impact on false starts, rules, setting records etc, I just can't see the adaptions being made for the olympics, sadly.

  • Comment number 18.

    and how about chess chamionships for the "not terribly bright", each player could have say, 15 queens.

  • Comment number 19.

    @14 The problem is culture attitude, not sport, and it is rooted in dogma at the top of deaf sport. Deaf can obviously participate in the Olympics, but NOT while they are demanding funds and support for a stand alone deaf alternative. Deaf can't raise the bar, because they don't get the impetus to improve, via training and competition.

  • Comment number 20.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 21.

    I wouldn't have thought a double amputee would run at the Olympics. I'm not entirely convinced that only being deaf would mean you are necessarily less able to compete against able bodied athletes, although technology may need to change. There is also an issue with deafness not being a binary state and whether it is concomitant with other issues. A poster child is needed.

  • Comment number 22.

    Deaf people need an alternative, the paralympics should provide that so deaf people aren't forced to be separated as some here are saying they are 'choosing' to be- they have no alternatives for certain sports. I hope in future the paralympics can encompass more categories and cater to more disabilities and be an inspiration to all disabled people who wish to participate in sports to a high level.

  • Comment number 23.

    No one has mentioned that playing any team games in the Olympics could be a problem if you are deaf (you have to be able to hear what your team mates are saying to you in a very noisy arena) For example, there is a deaf England cricket team. I am not sure that hearing people playing at a standard to be able to compete in the Olympics would be prepared to learn sign language.

  • Comment number 24.

    @13 David . There is no need for a visual aid . By allow the competitors to wear a vibration device you would have an equal chance . With modern technology their would be no time delay and if you allowed athletes to train with the device they would quickly become used to it .

  • Comment number 25.

    @Little Mel (23) As the article says, the US Olympic team included deaf players in basketball and volleyball -- both team sports.

  • Comment number 26.

    @24 Peter, I'm not sure that a vibration device would give an equal chance as an audible signal. It's not about the technology but anatomy, with different signals travelling along different nerve paths to different areas of the brain. MumHFA is right - the same signal would have to be used by all competitors.

  • Comment number 27.

    @26 Gavin. We already accept differences, such as Pistorius running against able-bodied athletes and some swimmers starting with lights instead of sounds (comment 10). It's not necessary to treat everyone identically, as long as nobody gains an unfair advantage. The first stage would be to test whether sound vs light or vibration is fair.

  • Comment number 28.

    Many of you have missed the point.

    There are many obstacles before you are good enough to enter the Olympics.

    For example, if I was interested in tennis, which tennis club has a coach who is confident in communicating with deaf people? Will I be able to communicate with this coach? Will the other tennis players be willing to communicate with me? Will I be able to communicate with them?

  • Comment number 29.

    Will I be able to understand the group chats/discussions? When playing matches, is the umpire aware that I am Deaf? Will s/he communicate with me clearly? How will I know if the ball is in or out? Will someone tell me? Will I understand what the other tennis player is saying in her/his arguments with the umpire? Will I understand what the tennis player is saying at the end of the match?

  • Comment number 30.

    @24 Gavin thats very true but as everybody in the heat would be hearing impaired ( T category ) . It wouldn't be a problem and as I not talking about 1 weeks training with the device but years it would be ingrained into the athletes .

  • Comment number 31.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 32.

    My son is deaf using hearing aids yet fences against so called able bodied athletes. If you imagine that this entails wearing a mask, most hearing people find this restrictive. Fencing uses a buzzer with light system to register hits but he was still ranked No.1 in his weapon for U16 this year in NI.

  • Comment number 33.

    So long as we explain to referees that he has an impairment they give him leeway if he fails to stop on a halt and most will use a hand signal to stop him. He is slightly disadvantaged as he sometimes thinks he has scored and turns to look for a light allowing his opponent as easy hit.

  • Comment number 34.

    But we have been lucky with coaches and competition organisers and his club now have 2 more hearing impaired competitors. Yes deafness can be a disadvantage in some ways but he would be upset to be classed as a disabled athlete.


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