In her previous five trips to the Paralympic Games, Russian American wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden won 17 medals, seven of which were gold. The 32-year-old track and field athlete, who was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the spine and left her paralyzed from the waist down, is considered to be the fastest woman in the world in her event. But despite all of the hardware she has won since making her Paralympic debut at 15, she has never been compensated like the superstar athlete she is — until now.
The 2021 Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo, which were pushed back a year because of the coronavirus pandemic and will take place Aug. 23 to Sept. 5, are a historic moment for para athletes: For the first time ever, McFadden and her fellow Team USA Paralympians will be paid the same as their Olympic counterparts for their medal wins.
“I feel valued,” McFadden said over the phone from Illinois, where she is training for this summer’s Games. “I know that sounds so sad to say,” but after years of feeling as if the Paralympics were an afterthought, the increased payout “makes me feel like we’re just like any other athlete,” she said. “Just like any Olympian.”
In 2018, the board of directors for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) voted to instate equal payouts for all Team USA athletes starting with the Tokyo Games. (The increase was given retroactively to 2018 Paralympic winners, awarding more than $1.2 million to those medalists.) The decision came 58 years after the Paralympics, formerly known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, made their official debut in Rome in 1960.
“This commitment by the USOPC is making a statement for the disability community and the community at large that just because someone has a disability, it does not make them any less valuable or deserving of equal treatment,” said Keri Serota, executive director and co-founder of Dare2tri, a nonprofit with the mission of enhancing the lives of individuals with physical disabilities and visual impairments.
Previously, Paralympians were paid $7,500 for gold, $5,250 for silver and $3,750 for bronze. Now, every medal-winning U.S. athlete will be paid $37,500 for taking home gold, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze. It’s a 400-percent increase for gold medalists, which thrills McFadden, but the discrepancy also “goes to show that Paralympic athletes are in it for the sport and generally love it because if I didn’t love it as much as I do, I wouldn’t have stuck around this long,” she said.
Unlike other countries, Team USA does not receive financial support from the federal government, so Olympic or Paralympic athletes often look to corporate sponsorships to help them fund their road to the Games. Others receive support from foundations such as the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which, for the past 27 years, has raised money for adaptive sports equipment, training and competition expenses. “With the right equipment and opportunities, sports unites and encourages us to be the best versions of ourselves,” Laura Wolf Stein, a CAF spokeswoman, said in an email. But she would like to see “media and sponsor support that shines a light on their individual journeys,” which “can not only raise the Paralympic movement but can have a positive impact on the world at large.”
Without additional financial help, it is often difficult for athletes to compete. For Paralympians, the cost of sport is high: McFadden’s carbon-frame racing chair cost $25,000, she said. That doesn’t include her wheels and tires, which she estimates, all together, cost upward of $12,000. “Sometimes you can go through six in a week,” she said.
A prosthetic leg used for sport can cost $20,000, according to paratriathlete Allysa Seely, whose left leg was amputated just below the knee in 2013, which is “a big financial barrier to entry into the sport,” she wrote via email. That is especially true because sport prosthetics like Seely’s are not covered by insurance and need to be updated and replaced as often as every other year because of weight gain or loss, or just general wear and tear. “I would say the cost of winning my gold medal in 2016 was easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said.
In recent years, former Olympic athletes have shared their stories of living at or close to the poverty line, applying for food stamps or turning to crowdfunding to make ends meet while competing. These accounts ring true for sitting volleyball star Nicole “Nicky” Nieves, a gold medalist in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, who said it is nearly impossible for Olympic and Paralympic athletes to hold down a full-time job while training 15 to 35 hours a week for the Games. “You’re saving up your PTO to be able to compete” in tournaments that could take place over a weekend or last as long as two weeks, she said. (She added that she knows only a couple of players from the 17-member sitting volleyball team who are working full time.)
Nieves works part time as a volleyball coach and is the founder of Limitless People, a nonprofit dedicated to making volleyball more accessible. For her, winning a medal in Tokyo would help save for retirement, pay for graduate school and eventually buy a house. It would “literally offset cost and help us live our lives,” she said.
The bigger payday is nice, but three-time gold-winning Paralympic swimmer McKenzie Coan, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or “brittle bone disease,” believes that equal pay does something more — it “sends a message of equality and optimism to all with disabilities.” Along with equal pay, NBC will air a record 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage, which she hopes will allow people all over the world to see that “whether it’s Paralympic swimming or any other para-sport, it’s all based on your abilities, not your disability.”
There’s more work to be done, said former Paralympian Amanda McGrory, who started playing adaptive sports in the late 1990s, but she believes things are changing for the better. As the archivist and collections curator at the USOPC, which she describes as “essentially an in-house historian,” she sees firsthand how “there are now more opportunities for sponsorships, more support from the public and overall more awareness of what elite disabled sports are.”
“As public perception around disability continues to change,” she said, “we, as athletes, can continue to be a part of that process, by using our platforms to normalize disability, and the disabled experience.”