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Coach and Lecturer Says British Athletes are Getting 'Left Behind'

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Today marks a year since the flame was extinguished at London’s phenomenally successful Paralympic Games – widely considered the best Games in the Paralympic movement’s 65 year history.

However, while the spotlight has never shone brighter on Britain’s Paralympians, one University of Worcester lecturer says that another equally deserving group of athletes are in danger of being kept firmly in the shade.

Rebecca Foster, Senior Lecturer in Adapted PE, has recently returned from Sofia, where she coached Great Britain’s track and field athletes in the 22nd Deaflympics – an IOC multi-sport event at which deaf athletes compete at an elite level.

Foster’s athletes put in a strong showing in the Bulgarian capital – Lauren Peffers picked up a silver medal in the 400m while Mel Jewett finished third in the marathon – but the lecturer is worried that Britain’s best deaf athletes are competing on an increasingly uneven playing field.

“All our athletes are self-funded,” she explains. “Some of them have their own independent sponsorship, and one managed to get a grant from her local council, but the vast majority juggle their sporting careers with a full-time job.

“This is in direct comparison to countries like Russia, whose athletes are fully funded and receive support that is allowing them to continually raise their standards. They are continuing to back their deaf athletes, and as a nation, it feels like Great Britain are in real danger of getting completely left behind.

“Across all sports, we picked up five medals in Sofia – which was an extremely good performance, but the lack of funding and support is disheartening for the athletes. As one said to me: ‘It feels like I’ve had to pay for my national vest’.

“She is incredibly proud to represent her country, but doesn’t feel that her country is proud of her.”

UK Deaf Sport – the national body charged with developing the country’s deaf athletes – recently received talent development funding from Sport England, but this money can only be invested in activity in England, rather than supporting Britain’s best athletes when travelling and competing abroad.

The next Deaflympics will be held in Turkey in 2017, but as both Olympic and Paralympic sports continue to benefit from London 2012, Foster is concerned that it is very much ‘now or never’ in terms of ensuring our athletes are given the best possible chance of fulfilling their potential.

She continues: “One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is on why the Deaflympics are separate from the Olympic and Paralympics. A key reason is the strong sense of identity and pride among the deaf community that the Deaflympics help to nurture.

“Also, the deaf community believes that rather than being seen as a disabled group in their own right, it is only in communication that they are at a disadvantage. To clarify, an athlete must have another disability other than being deaf to qualify for the Paralympics.

“Admittedly, this is a complex issue, but we must increase understanding, which will in turn increase the opportunities for deaf athletes in Great Britain and our chances of success on the global stage.”

The University of Worcester provided fitness training facilities for  the women’s football team – who went on to claim bronze – and helped with acclimatisation for track and field athletes ahead of the Games, but Foster says much more understanding is needed for deaf athletes to succeed in the sporting sector.

“My athletes have to register their qualifying times for major events and mainstream meetings in this country, but there is still no lighting system on the starting blocks,” she explains. “This minor adjustment would enable a more level playing field for those deaf athletes wanting to run against hearing athletes.  

“There is also a lack of understanding  from some hearing officials regarding the needs of a deaf athlete,  for example, some deaf athletes will have to tilt their heads to hear the starter’s pistol, automatically putting them at a disadvantage,” she says.

“While the country rightly celebrated the phenomenal achievements of our Paralympians last summer, it does seem that unfortunately, our deaf athletes are not been given the same chance to shine and show the world how talented they are.”