The possibility that athletes would some day ski downhill at the Olympics on one leg or over cross-country trails without the aid of vision once seemed very remote. In today's more open-minded Olympic environment, however, it has become a reality. The disabled haven't been granted full citizenship at the Games, but they have established a beachhead at the fringes of the world's largest and most prestigious sports extravaganzas.
They first got their foot in the door at the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo four years ago, with a men's exhibition skiing event. The Los Angeles Olympics that summer had wheelchair races of 800 meters for women and 1500 meters for men.
Here their winter presence has been expanded fourfold, with men's and women's 5-kilometer cross-country races, completed earlier this week, as well as men's and women's giant slaloms scheduled for Sunday.
Where might the pressures applied by the world's increasingly ambitious disabled athletic community lead?
``A couple of ideas that are being discussed at the international Olympic level are whether to create a separate, but equal, type of event for disabled athletes, or pursue some method of integration [into the Olympics],'' says Jack Benidick, program director for the US disabled ski team. ``I don't think that's something that will be resolved in the real near future ...''
All four events here have been given ``exhibition'' status, which places them below official and demonstration sports on the Olympic ladder. The top finishers receive medals, but not the same kind draped around the necks of the able-bodied competitors. Clearly the most distinctive feature of the exhibition medals is the Braille on one side.
The Nordic skiers are blind. Each was assisted by a sighted ski guide on the course at Canmore, site of regular Olympic cross-country events.
Although there are about 10 disabled categories, the Alpine skiing in these Games is only for the LW 2 classification (any disability, one leg). Theirs is easily identifiable as a disabled event, which may be one reason it was chosen. No artificial limbs are used, but the athletes are able to maintain their balance using special ski poles that act as outriggers or extra skis.
These athletes are delighted to have the opportunity to display their skill. Unfortunately, however, they won't get to show what they can really do. Instead of descending anything approaching the world-class layout at Mt. Allan 50 miles away, they'll tackle a relatively tame little run at Canada Olympic Park on the outskirts of town.
``It's a beginning, but we're all able to ski a much more difficult course,'' says Diana Golden of Lincoln, Mass., who swept all four gold medals at the 1986 world championships for the disabled and won the downhhill and giant slalom golds at the 4th Winter Games for the Disabled at Innsbruck last month.
The elite disabled skiers here are accustomed to reaching speeds of 65 m.p.h. or more in downhill races. The Olympic race does not represent a true test for them, and hints at the philosophical debates within disabled sports circles.
``There are those who say the courses should cater to the abilities of the broad range of disabled skiers,'' Golden says. ``We prefer to have ... world-class courses, and if people aren't capable of skiing them, they better start training.''
The seed of the philosophical differences often lies with those running disabled programs. One camp wants to promote athletic excellence, while the other, often populated by physical therapists, views disabled sports more as a form of recreational rehabilitation.
Those competing in Calgary, though, have achieved at a level even far beyond that of most able-bodied recreational skiers.
One indication of their proficiency is the caliber of the sighted guides who accompany them.
Craig Ward, who guides for fellow Coloradan John Novotny, is a former member of US Olympic team. He often stays ahead of John by less than 10 feet, calling out directions. (Novotny was the top US finisher here, coming in sixth as Europeans, led by gold medalists Hans Aalien of Norway and Veronika Preining of Austria, dominated both cross-country events.)
Among the Alpine competitors, Golden says she probably enters more races against able-bodied skiers than on the disabled circuit. ``I finish far back in the pack racing against the top 100 girls in the East, but there are girls in that group close to my time,'' she says.
One disadvantage she faces is not being able to step from turn to turn. Then, too, fatigue enters the picture.
``Skiing on two legs you're shifting your weight from one ski to the other,'' she explains. ``When you're on one ski, that leg ... doesn't have a chance to rest and recover.''
No one, of course, is suggesting ignoring these differences and holding the disabled athletes up to the standards of full-fledged Olympians. Where arguments arise is about the place of the disabled in the Olympics, where the world's unqualified best supposedly compete.
Ted Fay, Nordic director of the US disabled team, argues that the disabled belong in the same way as women, who enjoy full Olympic status without producing identical performances to those of their male counterparts.
But disabled athletes have not received uniform acceptance here. Those competing for the United States and some other countries marched in the opening ceremony, but others were not given this opportunity.
``The other American athletes wanted us there and treated us that way,'' says David Jamison, a slalom racer, who believes Americans are better able to push for progress. ``It's easier to get up and speak ... and demand things in the United States than it is in other countries.''
Participation here of course is the greatest means of making a point, especially for an unassertive person like John Novotny.
``I'm not very militant in my crusade for disabled people and blind people in getting acceptance,'' he says. ``For me personally the best way I can help the disabled population is through my own example. I live my life as happily as I can make it, and as successfully as I can make it. And I hope through living it that way ... I can work toward better integration as a whole.''
In terms of the Olympics, full integration of the disabled could take years, and may never happen. The torch has been lit, though, and the examples of athletes like Novotny, Golden, Jamison, and the rest are only likely to flame the fire.