Saturday, December 10, 2011

A new blog where athletes come first

The mainstream media are still falling behind in covering disability sports and the network of resources for athletes with disability is far from perfect, but a new blog carries a promise of making things better.

Athletes First: Sporting Abilities and Opinions is administered by Andrea Bundon, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada who, in a collaboration with a group of athletes, started a blog that serves as a connecting point for those interested in disability sports.

The idea was conceived when Bundon became a guide to a cross country skier Courtney Knight, who was at the time preparing for the 2010 Paralympic Games. During the travels for training and competition to remote locations, Bundon and Knight kept in touch with their friends and family through blogging.

“I loved that idea of athletes as sort of 'foreign correspondents' who would travel the world and do all these interesting things and then send reports back home,” Bundon said. At the same time, Bundon was aware that athletes with disability might not have the same opportunities to connect with each other as able-bodied athletes do.

“At some point the two ideas came together,” Bundon recalled. “Courtney and I started to think maybe we could use a blog to connect athlete to athlete in a way that enables athletes to be a resource to each other.”

Putting the blog together, just as most collaborative work, has been a challenging process mostly due to conflicting timelines with the athletes who are busy with competition. For Bundon, perhaps the greatest challenge, however, has been to negotiate her role as a researcher in this project.

“One question I've struggled with right from the start is 'what right do I have to do this research?',” Bundon wondered. “I'm an able-bodied athlete who has had this incredible opportunity see the Paralympic from the inside out. Because I guided at the 2010 Games, the Canadian Paralympic Committee classifies me as a 'Paralympian' but that's not an identity I claim and I'm well aware that there are many who would challenge that classification. But at the same time I saw an opportunity to combine my academic interests with my passion for sport and my belief that sport should be accessible to everyone.”

She is combining these effectively through the blog that officially launched two weeks ago and includes contributions from Paralympic athletes and guides. The blog welcomes comments from readers and encourages participation in the dialogue.

As the language around disability sports can be highly problematic and gets “complicated,” as the blog team concluded, the name of the blog was carefully thought out. Bundon gives full credit to Knight for coming up with it.

“AthletesFirst is a play on the 'person first language' promoted by many disability rights activists - for example 'person with a disability' rather than 'disabled person,' - and it also references the notion of an athlete-centred sport system,” Bundon explained. “But most importantly, it represents the desire of all athletes to be recognized for their athletic achievements.”

The members of the blog team, though dispersed geographically, are committed to making the blog a space where athletes can share their experiences and address issues they encounter in sports. Bundon finds that to be a significant contribution of the blog.

“Participating in discussions about the practices of the sport system is an important step for athletes who want to be more involved in the sport system and advocate for policies that are athlete-centred,” Bundon said. “This is particularly important for athletes with a disability given that they are operating within a system that was not necessarily designed with them in mind.”

As the London 2012 Paralympic Games are approaching, readers can expect to learn more about the preparations and the legacy from the blog and might also encounter some “star appearances” beyond the regular contributors.

“We have a few athletes who've committed to making 'guest' blogs on topics they are particularly passionate about,” Bundon announced. “There a few other things in the works - a photo contest, a twitter chat and ideas are emerging all the time. You'll have to keep reading...”

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Thank you to Andrea Bundon for taking the time to share the story of the blog.

-- Dunja Antunovic