Disabled athletes won't be ignored at the Commonwealth Games. The head of the Australian team made sure of that.
After Arthur Tunstall called the wheelchair racers, one-legged swimmers, blind lawn bowlers and other disabled competitors "an embarrassment," the issue sizzled as tonight's opening ceremonies approached."Arthur Tunstall does not represent the majority of Australians, and this is embarrassing for him to say. He's in a minority of one," said George Heller, president of the Victoria Commonwealth Games Society.
"These athletes are far from being an embarrassment. They are an inspiration to all of us to get on with our lives."
The brouhaha began Tuesday night when Tunstall was interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Company and the Australian Associated Press. He said it was wrong to integrate the disabled athletes with the Games.
"It's got to be an embarrassment because people are going out of their way to assist them, and the abled people are a little bit embarrassed to have them around," Tunstall said.
When the word of his comments spread, reporters mobbed the 72-year-old Tunstall wherever he went. At the University of Victoria, photographers ignored Prince Edward as he left a meeting and chased Tunstall down the sidewalk.
Reporters persisted so much in questioning the outgoing chairman of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Sonny de Salas, about Tunstall that he snapped, "What would you like me to do? Shoot him?"
Tunstall was elected a vice president of the federation at its general assembly Tuesday, the first Australian so honored.
Late Wednesday afternoon, as the pressure mounted, Tunstall read a statement saying he didn't mean his remarks to be taken the way they were.
The word embarrassment "was intended as a reference to what I perceive to be the inadequate way in which disabled sports are being presented at these Commonwealth Games," Tunstall said.
Only 58 disabled athletes are participating in the three sports, even though space was provided for 130. Tunstall said a separate Commonwealth Games for disabled athletes would be better.
"I accept that I may have offended some people by the comments I have made," Tunstall said. "Therefore, I want to apologize for them. What I have said certainly was not meant to be taken in the context it was, and without reservation I express that I am sorry."
Tom Hainey, a disabled swimmer on the Canadian team, said Tunstall's feelings are well known.
"He also said it last September when he was here, but it didn't hit the media then like it has now," Hainey said. "For him to come on our soil and then condemn it, shows that he has no respect for the athletes."
The minister of sports for Australia, John Faulkner, was quick to distance his government from Tunstall's comments.
"We support the integration of disabled athletes into sporting events such as the Commonwealth Games," Faulkner said. "That has been a long-standing policy of our government and our sports commission."
Canadian Rick Hansen, a three-time world wheelchair marathon champion and the leader in bringing disabled athletics into the Commonwealth Games, said, "People who have been involved in a very conservative organization are going to be slow to change."
Hansen said the comments may turn out to be a good thing because of the attention focused on disabled athlete. Everywhere you looked outside the athletes' village Wednesday, reporters were interviewing disabled athletes.
"The way I see it there could be nothing worse than disabled athletes going through the Games and no one hardly saying a word about it one way or another," Hansen said.