Association sport

President of the German Sports Association for the Disabled speaks in an interview about the importance of sport and international cooperation | D+C

Many people with disabilities are active in sport. Friedhelm Julius Beucher, President of the German Disabled Sports Association, told D+C/E+Z why this is important for society as a whole and how his association cooperates with other countries.

All over the world, sport brings people together and keeps them fit. How important are they for people with disabilities?
Disabled sports are essential. They contribute to the maintenance of individual health even more than sport for non-disabled people. People with disabilities who play sports not only feel better and are more mobile, they stay fit longer. According to a report by the German federal government, however, 55% of people with disabilities in Germany do not play sports. This is an alarming figure and a major challenge for society as a whole, including health insurance providers. It is therefore necessary to improve the offers. The problem is that more than 90% of sports fields and gymnasiums in Germany are not accessible to people with disabilities. For example, stairs often prevent wheelchair users from entering. If they enter the gym, they often cannot use the toilet. Blind or visually impaired people often have no way of finding their way around.

How can this be improved?
Construction measures must not only be announced, but must actually be carried out. The good news is that newly constructed buildings are accessible. However, most gymnasiums are owned by municipalities, which lack funds. Although there is an awareness of the needs of people with disabilities, improvements are being implemented too slowly in Germany. We are, after all, talking about human rights: people with disabilities have the right to participate.

How is disabled sport organized in Germany?
There are more than 6,400 sports clubs for the disabled, as well as thousands of clubs which, in addition to sports for the able-bodied, also offer sports for the disabled. However, they are still too few. Many sports can be practiced jointly by people with and without disabilities, such as wheelchair basketball. We are working to create fewer sports clubs for the disabled and to make it easier for people without disabilities to join sports clubs. In Germany, there are 17 state associations for sports clubs for the disabled and two professional associations for wheelchair athletes and deaf athletes. As the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS), we are the national umbrella organization and are particularly responsible for elite sports.

Your association has a good 500,000 members. Why are you so popular?
When I took over as president in 2009, we had about 240,000 members. Since then, we have improved our visibility and our offers. It is the result of the hard work of many people and the successful efforts of thousands of local clubs. We still had more members, but more than 100,000 people have left the clubs since the Covid-19 pandemic, because during these times almost no sporting activity took place. Many disabled athletes are also particularly cautious during the pandemic, as they belong to high-risk groups, for example due to breathing difficulties.

How is disabled sport funded in Germany?
Amateur sports depend on club dues, corporate sponsorships and donations. Financial support also comes from the federal states, which are responsible for amateur sport. Professional sports, i.e. the German Paralympic team, are marketed by an agency that gets a huge amount of sponsorship money. But for the most part, competitive sports are funded by federal tax revenues.

What sports are the most popular?
Para-athletics and wheelchair basketball are favorites in amateur and competitive sports. Para-cycling is also becoming increasingly popular. There are many variations. Sometimes the bike is operated with a crank while lying down.

To what extent does Germany support disabled sports abroad?
The German Federal Foreign Office has been promoting international sport for more than 50 years. The program encompasses a variety of projects aimed at creating and developing amateur sports infrastructure in many countries. It is an important part of Germany’s cultural and educational policy abroad.

Do you have specific examples?
In preparation for the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, we had a close exchange with Brazil. For example, our national goalball team, a game for the visually impaired, visited crèches in the favelas, poor neighborhoods of Rio, as part of an education project. We have also invited people with disabilities from North Korea, Argentina and Chile to Germany to experience disability sports in the snow of the Black Forest. German coaches are also sent to Africa and Asia to provide further training.

How does such cooperation come about?
We remain in regular contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ). In addition, we receive requests from clubs in other countries. They often ask for financial support, which we cannot actually provide as it would violate our statutes. Sometimes they also ask for resources, such as sports wheelchairs or prostheses. We forward these requests to other aid institutions and organisations. In addition, some requests come from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the umbrella organization for National Committees. The IPC has its headquarters in Bonn. We are close partners, for example in the WeThe15 campaign.

Can you please explain this?
WeThe15 refers to the fact that 15% of the world’s population lives with a disability. It is a global movement whose goal is to make people with disabilities more visible, end discrimination and champion inclusion and accessibility. In support of this goal, on August 19, 2021, more than 100 landmarks in multiple countries and time zones were illuminated in purple, the international color for persons with disabilities. We made sure that the Olympia stadium in Berlin was illuminated. This movement takes place all over the world and also contributes to the cooperation between different countries.

The international highlight of sports for the disabled are the Paralympic Games, which always take place after the Olympics in the same place.
They are the absolute highlight, yes. The decision that the Olympic Games would only be allowed together with the Paralympic Games was a leap forward for sports for the disabled. The agreement in question will be valid until 2032. But I assume that it will be renewed.

Earlier this year, the Paralympic Winter Games were held in Beijing. You were there with the German team. What was your experience of the Games?
In the words of one of our athletes: it was like two and a half weeks in prison with a day off. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and related restrictions, we were not allowed to have any contact with the Chinese people. I can understand that, but our freedom of movement was still excessively restricted. Our resort was closed. The purpose of the Olympics and Paralympics is actually to get to know people from other countries, to learn about other cultures and to discover how sport can bring people together. This concept has been shelved. Before the Games, the Chinese government also threatened to set its legal system in motion if we made negative statements about the country. I was already of the opinion that no sports competition should be awarded to countries that violate human rights – be it the Olympics and Paralympics in China or the World Cup in Qatar. This experience strengthened my position (on Chinese authoritarianism, see Hans Dembowski at www.dandc.eu).

The next major event will be the 2024 Paralympic Summer Games in Paris. Are you looking forward to them?
Of course, they will hopefully be a big party and a huge opportunity to bring attention to disability sports! I assume that by then the pandemic will be better contained so that a better exchange can take place.

If you could make one wish for the future of parasport, what would it be?
I hope that we can advance the equality and non-discrimination of persons with disabilities that is enshrined in the constitution, and step by step, but rather by leaps and bounds. We really should be able to live out the claim to participation set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – every day,
everywhere.


Friedhelm Julius Beucher is president of the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS), which is also the German National Paralympic Committee.

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