May 12, 2022

Great forgotten of the Paralympic Games, deaf sport wants to give voice

Despite its status as the oldest disabled sports federation in France, deaf sport is struggling to make itself known in France. Not invited to the Paralympics, deaf or hard of hearing athletes shine every four years during the Deaflympics. Between these events, French deaf sport is structured, between specialized clubs and integration with the able-bodied.

When I win competitions, sometimes I forget my handicap because I tell myself that I succeeded among the able-bodied “, slide the pole vaulter Marie Rivereau, before specifying: “But I will never forget my handicap. When we open our eyes in the morning the first thing we do is put on our hearing aids “.

The triathlete Théo Moreau, his companion, who also competes among the able-bodied, adds: “Sport does not make people forget the handicap, but allows you to let off steam in the face of the difficulties of deafness in everyday life. Sport makes it possible to highlight success despite a handicap, to show that anything is possible “. In France, like Marie and Théo, thousands of deaf or hard of hearing people practice regular sport. A tradition that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, and which takes various forms.

In 1918, the “Coubertin des Sourds” founded the first sports federation for mutes in France. His name: Eugène Rubens-Allais. “He was a great man “, assures today Didier Pressard, deaf, and member of the Coordination Committee of French Deaf Athletes (CCSF) of the Handisport Federation (FFH). It develops : “Before 1900, we started to see a lot of deaf people riding bikes, and then other sports wanted to move forward. We had to manage competitions, cycling, football, swimming. The idea was then to compete, influenced at the time by the Olympic spirit instilled by Pierre de Coubertin. The deaf wanted to do the same “. And they do. In 1924, Paris hosted the first International Games of Silence in the Bois de Vincennes. Nine nations are present. “Today, they are called the Deaflympics, and 116 countries participate every four years.s “, explains Didier Pressard.

From then on, deaf sport will be structured around this four-year international meeting. In France, the deaf federation was however absorbed in 2007 by the FFH, by decision of the sports ministry. “At the beginning it was not easy, the deaf felt really different, it is not the same culture. We are not the body our handicap, it is simply the communication: they are two separate paths “, explains Didier Pressard, when discussing this initially complicated merger. “We tried to find solutions, but we were not trained in sign language. We had trouble communicating. We have changed a lot in the last 10 years, it is working very well now “, tempers Sébastien Messager of the FFH. Since then, the new structure has found its cruising speed. The objective now: to develop deaf sport in France, and to structure it, because today, it is a rich universe, but dispersed.

There is a lot of practice in France, but there is a lack of knowledge both of the clubs, and also of deaf people “, summarizes Sébastien Messager, who regrets: “The reception of deaf athletes is often very random, except for certain practices such as deaf football, deaf hand, deaf bowling, deaf petanque “. In other words, for team sports, deaf clubs are obliged to see the light of day, and do so spontaneously, but for individual disciplines, athletes join able-bodied clubs which give themselves the means to welcome them.

This is particularly the case of pole vaulter Marie Rivereau, or the coach of the French deaf football team, Sylvain Moran. Before becoming the boss of the Blues, the latter has indeed long delighted able-bodied clubs, playing up to the sixth division: “I wanted to experience the highest level possible. You have to work more than the able-bodied to show that you can play with them, to show that you deserve your place. It’s a question of the mind. Sometimes the communication was not easy. When you are deaf, you have to do everything with your eyes, interpret the signs of teammates, their looks “.

For the deaf, evolving with the able-bodied requires only a few precautions, as Marie testifies: “During the competition, you just have to warn the judges that I don’t hear anything so as not to miss my turn”. Théo adds: “There are a few precautions to take, especially during bike rides: since I can’t hear, it’s pointless to shout to warn of a problem, so I have to take action “, and also remove his hearing aid during swimming sessions. But the rewards are worth the effort once you’ve found the right club. “It’s not difficult, you have to explain to people how to do it and it goes well. You just have to find the right people, the right club to thrive completely “, concludes Theo.

The last Deaflympics took place in Turkey in the summer of 2018. (HAKAN BURAK ALTUNOZ / ANADOLU AGENCY)

But not all deaf athletes have the chance to compete among the able-bodied, especially in team sport, which explains why football and handball are two of the disciplines favored by the deaf, with 1000 and 130 licensees respectively in France. As for individual sports, judo, cycling and swimming dominate, behind pétanque and bowling. In total, the disabled sports federation counts 2,600 licensees, not counting those who are engaged in close to valid partner federations, such as in judo or badminton. Without counting those who practice outside the radars of the FFH by ignorance of its existence. Because to get a license, only an audiogram is necessary, with a hearing loss of at least 55 decibels.

Once registered in a club, deaf athletes can dream of wearing the colors of France at the Deaflympics, their own Olympic Games, but not at the Paralympic Games, where no event is reserved for them, despite negotiations in the past. “It’s a shame that we are not mixed, but on the one hand I tell myself that we have two arms two legs “, relativizes Marie Rivereau. “Behind the Olympics, the Gay Games, we are in 3rd position anyway with the Deaflympics. In 1997, it was the President of the IOC who inaugurated the Deaflympics “, recalls for his part Didier Pressard, who however regrets their low media coverage in France: “Here, hearing people do not know the world of the deaf, which is very serious. In other countries, the deaf world, and in particular deaf sports, is widely recognized, such as Turkey, Italy and Germany “.

But whatever for deaf athletes, the Deaflympics remain the number one goal. “It is their holy grail, their benchmark competition. Unlike the valid world, the deaf need to exist at the Deaflympics to develop nationally afterwards. When they start, they immediately want to go international “, enlightens Sébastien Messager. With more than 300 medals at the moment, including 82 in gold, France has grown accustomed to shining at the Deaflympics. But today, the objective is also to structure deaf sport outside of this Olympiad.

We have to develop our communication. We equip club educators, for example we launched a sign language dictionary on the federation’s website, with videos with technical terms of sport so that educators can more easily integrate people “, explains Sébastien Messager. Enough to train a new generation of deaf athletes? That’s the point. In the meantime, the current generation has an appointment in May 2022 at the Deaflympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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