Disabled Ping-Pong Player Claims Paralympics Bias
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The Summer Olympics begin in less than three weeks. But for the world's best athletes with disabilities, the big event comes in September. About 4,000 people will compete at the Beijing Paralympics. Norman Bass will not be one of them.
Bass, an American, happens to be one of the best players in the sport of disabled table tennis. But he wasn't selected for the Paralympics. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, Bass believes he was left off because of his age. He is 69 years old.
TOM GOLDMAN: Age always has been a relative thing to Norman Bass. He felt old and decrepit at 24 - that's when severe rheumatoid arthritis forced him to give up a promising career as a Major League baseball pitcher.
Mr. NORMAN BASS (Paralympics Athlete): I was sick, mad at God, mad at everybody because I couldn't play. And I watch TV and see guys on there playing that really couldn't play at my level, but I had to watch it. And that lasted about 15 years of depression.
GOLDMAN: He came out of this funk when he discovered table tennis. Bass rediscovered the competitive athlete within and realized his experience from the Major Leagues gave him an advantage on the table.
Mr. BASS: The thought of a pitcher's process that you throw fast balls in, out, up, down, change speeds that I discovered that if I play table tennis just like that, I could beat these guys. Even though they can hit real hard and I couldn't. They didn't know this, but inside, I'm still playing baseball.
GOLDMAN: His wrists were locked by arthritis; deformed elbows prevented him from straightening his arms, still, Bass succeeded against able-bodied players until 1999 when he realized his disabilities allowed him to join the U.S. Paralympic Table Tennis team.
(Soundbite of cheers and applause)
Unidentified Man: Joshua Bartel and Norman Bass.
GOLDMAN: In 2000, Bass teamed with Joshua Bartel to win a bronze medal at the Sydney Paralympics. His victory was notable because at 61, he was the oldest U.S. athlete at the games. There was a good chance 69-year-old Bass would've had that same distinction in China. After a season ending tournament in Chicago last year, Bass had gotten his ranking up to 15th in his division, the top 16 in the World are chosen for the games.
Mr. SEAN O'NEILL (Head Coach, U.S. Paralympic Table Tennis Team): After Chicago, I remember giving Norm a high-five thing, you know, you're in the top 16, we're going to Beijing.
GOLDMAN: Sean O'Neill is head coach for the U.S. Paralympic table tennis team.
Mr. O'NEILL: And then, it was just like a ton of bricks being kind of dropped on my feet, and I couldn't believe it.
GOLDMAN: It turned out Bass' number 15 ranking was not enough. A special committee of the International Table Tennis Federation decided the top 14 would be automatically selected - the final two slots would be filled by wildcard picks. Ultimately, it came down to a choice between 20-year-old William Bayley of England and Bass. They chose Bayley. Afterwards, a committee member explained in an e-mail, we want to promote young players who can be the future of our sport. The committee decided to allocate the second slot to the youngest player. Bass says the decision broke his heart.
Mr. BASS: And you know, in this country, you can't go anywhere and tell a man he can't do an event because he's too old, right? You go to court. You can't win.
GOLDMAN: Especially, he says, since he had a higher ranking and more points than Bayley. The U.S. Olympic Committee took up the case but decided it couldn't win a legal challenge because the rules clearly said the wildcard slots can be filled by whomever the committee wants. In later e-mails to U.S. officials, the committee members said while age was a factor, they considered other reasons as well, including another player rating system that ranked Bayley ahead of Bass.
Table tennis coach Sean O'Neill concedes the selection committee isn't as villainous as it first seemed. It's a Eurocentric group, he says, that truly values the up-and-coming generation in a sport that's a lot more popular overseas than in the U.S.
Mr. O'NEILL: They're doing their best to try to help move it in the right direction. It's just, of all the people to get burned by this type of move, Norm basically shows how great the sport is.
GOLDMAN: Bass was named first alternate for Beijing. His coach, O'Neill, wants the rules changed that strikes any mention of age in the selection process for major table tennis championships.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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