Deaf Olympians spend more time, money to compete

TAIPEI (Reuters Life!) - Chang Lee-hsiao lost his hearing to a fever at age 3. Forty-three years later, he is one of Taiwan’s top bowlers with several medals to his name, but it certainly wasn’t easy, or inexpensive.

Hong Kong actor Aaron Kwok attends a news conference, to mark the 70-day countdown for the Deaflympics, in Hong Kong June 27, 2009. The 21st Deaflympics, which includes many sports from the Olympics Games for athletes with hearing loss, will start in September 5, in Taipei, Taiwan. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Chang, a Taipei elementary school aide, has practiced bowling for up to five hours a day over 15 years, during which he had to win over his family who were opposed to his pursuit of the sport because of the expenses involved, his coach Yang Yu-wen said.

His story is typical of a deaf athlete and a reason that the Deaflympics, or Olympics for the hearing impaired, have been held since 1924 separately from the mainstream Games.

The quadrennial Deaflympics take place in Taipei this month with 3,959 athletes from 104 countries.

Deaf Olympians must spend extra time and money to reach comparable levels to athletes with normal hearing, and often with sponsorships, because of the lack of qualified coaches who know sign language, said Chen Chien-tsui, an event convener at the Taipei 2009 Deaflympics.

Team sports are particularly hard as deaf athletes cannot hear guns, whistles and shouts.

“The difference lies in the time required to learn a sport,” Chen said. “Most deaf people don’t want to endure that tough period.”

Chang’s success, namely 10 Deaflympics medals since 2001, has hinged largely on the goodwill of his coach, who grew up in the bowler’s south Taiwan hometown and not only understands his technique but his family, finances and emotional shifts.

“He sees a lot of old friends in Taiwan and gets excited. I say ‘you need to focus on the contest,’” Yang said. “I have to tell him not to be so happy. Tomorrow’s another day.’

Chang, for his part, has spent more than T$300,000 ($9,143) of his own money on bowling balls, the coach said.

Other athletes struggle because they cannot hear instructions during play. They must read feedback later to see what they did right or wrong.

“They’re very closed off. There’s no way to talk to them,” said Lin Chen-yen, press division head for the 2009 games. “They can only use written words to express themselves, so it’s slower.

Australian ping pong player Jacob Dyball, 19, overcame issues with money, time and training over the past four years to reach the Deaflympics, which was too expensive for other Australians.

Dyball held fundraisers in his 22,000-population hometown of Singleton to reach Taipei, with just one teammate and no coach.

“We’ve got to use our own minds,” he said. “It cost a lot to be here, plus I work and he works,” said Dyball, a university student, referring to his teammate. “I have to pay my own way and don’t really have a coach.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy