Last week I was privileged to sit down and interview a handful of Stanford students who had spent their summer competing against the world’s elite at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Of everything we chatted about, one thing struck me most: All of them but one were on the Farm’s varsity teams.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected all of these athletes to have serious support from the Athletics Department, but instead that, for a university that prides itself on the breadth of its sporting interest, I had expected all of them to have this backing.
The odd one out? Senior Roy Perkins, a six-time medal winner in the pool at the last two Games, including a gold medal in Beijing 2008.
If you are surprised that you have never heard of him, I should explain that Perkins did not compete in the Olympics, but in the Paralympics. But I don’t see the fact that he was born without hands or feet as relevant here. Where you or I might see disability, Perkins has gone out and achieved more athletically than most of us able-bodied souls will ever get close to.
Every single semi-professional athlete at Stanford, from the varsity squads to the club teams and the independents like Perkins, has to struggle to balance the demands of one of the world’s top academic universities against their training commitments. For most, this is nothing new; it is what they having been doing pretty much since as far back as they can remember. Where you or I may be an expert at procrastination, many of these folks just simply can’t afford that luxury.
There is a class difference, however, even if not necessarily in ability. The varsity athletes at Stanford may still have to take the same classes as the rest of us and achieve the same minimum GPA to stay enrolled, but they do have a lot of support in all the other areas of their lives. From access to world-class coaches and facilities to skilled trainers and physical therapists that help them deal with injuries, free travel to competitions and even some flexibility when exams conflict with events.
The question of whether student athletes should be paid is a controversial one. The majority of universities and the NCAA are clearly against the idea, which could significantly eat into the huge profits they can make from college sports such as football and basketball.
But although students are given the opportunity to get a college degree “for free,” they often risk serious injury that could make the difference between becoming a professional superstar and an unknown nobody; on those terms it only seems right that they should earn something during their time at college.
Don’t be fooled, however. It is only when you compare the difference between the athlete haves and have-nots that you realize how much they are paid in kind.
Watching the Paralympic Games a few weeks ago was both a frustrating and inspiring experience. Frustrating because here, in the United States, the official broadcaster NBC basically ignored the event. Inspiring because when I finally discovered a way to watch events live on YouTube, it was not just amazing to see top athletes achieving remarkable things, but also to see packed stadiums cheering them on.
It is depressing, though, that this is really a once-in-every-four-years experience. Only then do Paralympians come close to the support and attention given to their Olympian brothers and sisters. That many can compete at the level that they do after this complete vacuum is far more impressive than Usain Bolt winning yet another 100m final.
Many countries must be deeply envious of the NCAA and collegiate athletics in the USA. It is really not a surprise that given the resources available at many universities here, a significant number of colleges routinely win far more gold, silver and bronze medals than most nations. The United States might not always win the medal count at the Olympics, but it always comes close, and many of its rivals can count themselves to have United States-trained athletes among their teams. It is easy to feel that the culture of U.S. collegiate sport has raised the bar of the competition at the Olympic Games.
Imagine, then, what providing similar support for athletes like Perkins could achieve. The phrase “Paralympic Games” stands not for disability but for the “Parallel Olympic Games.” Is it not time that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was similarly joined by an equal twin, the National Collegiate Parathletic Association?
Tom Taylor’s allegiance to the Union Jack paid off in a big way this summer, as the Games returned to London and he was there every step of the way. To learn about more of his experiences, email him at Tom.email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @DailyTomTaylor.