Local skier undecided over discrimination suit | VailDaily.com

Local skier undecided over discrimination suit

Cliff Thompson

When three disabled Paralympic Athletes filed suit in Federal Court in Denver earlier this week claiming discrimination by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the action left one local superstar of the disabled skiing world conflicted.

Edwards resident Sarah Will, 38, five-time world monoski champion and winner of 12 Paralympic gold medals, said she isn’t sure she can support the suit. With her high profile in the world of disabled athletics – she’s been featured on television commercials and shows – she’s been lobbied hard by both the U.S. Olympic Committee and by Scott Hollonbeck, one of the disabled athletes filing the suit.

“It’s tough,” she said. “There are athletes who really stuck their necks out there like Billy Jean King and the fight for Title 9. This feels like the same thing. The tough part is there are valid points on both sides. I need to know more before I make a decision.”

Title 9 is an amendment to the 1972 Civil Rights act barring sexual discrimination.

Civil rights

Hollonbeck, 33, dominated disabled road and track racing in the 1990s, setting a record time of 1:24: 26 in the 26.2-mile Boston Marathon; able-bodied athletes take more than two hours to finish the world-famous race.

But Hollonbeck said when it came to the Olympics and Paralympics – which operate under the umbrella of the U.S. Olympic Committee, or USOC – disabled athletes were getting the short end of the stick both from a civil rights standpoint and contractually.

“As an athlete it was crystal clear,” he said. “You can’t have discriminatory treatment based on disability. They’re breaking the law. The USOC is in receipt of federal subsidy. That’s illegal.”

When public money is received by an organization the law requires it be disbursed equally. That hasn’t happened, Hollonbeck said.

Will, who retired from competition this year, said the USOC and its recent off-shoot, the Paralympics, have made improvements in the two years since the spinoff. She also said she feels the suit may become a double-edged sword.

“It comes down to funding,” she said. “The U.S Paralympics has been struggling with funding. There doesn’t seem to be enough to go around. I think we’re all fighting the same fight.

“I’m undecided only because I believe in what both sides are fighting for,” she said. “Scott Hollonbeck is right too.”

A move backwards?

Will said she is concerned the suit and struggle for parity may undo what for her, has proven to be progress, by putting recent gains in disabled athletics funding in jeopardy.

“I’ve been competing in the Paralaympic games since 1992,” she said. “The Salt Lake Games is first time I’ve ever been awarded prize money. That prize money is not comparable to Olympic gold – it’s worth one tenth -but it is a start.

“(The Paralympics) is going though growing pains. It’s going to take time. We need a strong foundation and need to build from here,” she said. “So far is doing a great job for us.”

Will acknowledges money is always an issue. It’s difficult to hold down a full-time job and try and be a full-time athlete, too. Then there’s the additional cost of securing insurance if you’re disabled, she said.

Funding is the heart of the suit said Amy Robertson, attorney for the plaintiffs. She said funding for paralympians is at one-tenth the level it is for Olympians. The USOC has a budget of $491 million for Olympians while Paralympians get just $15 million

“Part of the difference is the benefits and direct support the USOC gives to the 600 U.S. Olympians and not the 250 Paralympians,” she said.

Olympic athletes are insured by the USOC while Paralympians are not.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been treated like a second class citizen,” Will said. “My Olympic experience has been really positive. What has not been positive is the amount of media coverage . Did anyone know we even competed in Nagano) Japan? It was pathetic.

“We worked four years of our lives training just as hard as any Olympian and we got no support,” she said.

Brand battle

But there’s another facet to the trial – Hollonbeck and his attorney claim the USOC breached a contract.

“When the USOC in 2000 spun off the Paralympics into a separate entity,” Robertson said, “it let them try and make money on their own to give them full authority over the Olympic brand to sell to sponsors. It’s a very valuable brand.”

In 2001, the Paralympics hired Hollonbeck’s company – the sports marketing agency Vie Sports – to sell the brand to heavy hitters, which, Robertson said, is what the contract promised.

“There was lots of foot dragging by the USOC and finally they said, “No, you cant go approach big sponsors,'” Robertson said. “In doing this to Vie – cutting off access to big sponsors – they were cutting off a huge source of funding. The whole pattern is a pattern of discrimination for Paralympic athletes.”

Representatives of the USOC could not be reached for their comment as most were at the PanAmerican Games in the Dominican Republic.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555 x450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com

Support Local Journalism