Alex was a Formula 1 racer. Formula 1 cars are the fastest and most dangerous cars to race and often exceed 220 miles per hour (compared with Nascar’s average speed of 180 mph) and Alex was one of the best the sport has ever seen. In 2001 Alex Zanardi’s car was hit by another car as he left the pit during a race where he was in the lead. The accident tore the nose from Zanardi’s car and with both of his legs. At the time, Alex Zanardi’s son was only 3, he would grow up probably never remembering when his dad had legs, not remembering the fanfare around one of Italy’s most famous drivers or the tragic effect it had over the entire country when the accident occurred.
Zanardi recovered and returned to racing with 2 prosthetic legs but he was in a separate class and not seen as the same quality as his past should have dictated. Frustrated by that, Alex switched sports. During his training to maintain his fitness as a racer he often used a hand bike to workout. When he found that the hand bike was an actual event in the Para Olympics he began to train for that competition. He never gave up, he never complained and in the 2012 Games of London, he won 2 Gold medals and 1 Silver, no small feat for any athlete in any sport.
Reading his story, I was thinking about what defines an athlete. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an athlete is “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina,” and Wikipedia tells us “A superior athlete is one who has above average physical skills (strength, agility, and endurance) and is thus more suited for physical competition. I wondered if we should define a great athlete as “winning” more? Does that mean Michael Phelps is a better athlete than Soviet champion gymnast Larissa Latynina since he bested her winning record at the Olympics? (Actual answer is no, Gymnastics trumps all).
Yet consider the difference in sports: does a gymnast (strong, agile, powerful, flexible and graceful) compare to a swimmer (strength with endurance) or a baseball fielder (eye/hand coordination, strength)? No, they don’t compare. I have argued with relatives for years how a Race Car driver is not an athlete because all they do is sit and drive, with those criteria I am in training every day. But there is an athleticism to driving (especially the way I do it), but could we compare a driver to a Soccer player?
I think that athletes should be compared within their own sports definition of a participant. Would Gabbie Douglas compare to Clay Mathews when their skill set is so vastly different? Of course not. Could we compare Alex Zanardi to Lance Armstrong aside from both using bikes? Of course not. So to define an athlete we have to go to the core of the distinction that separates them from average everyday people. I believe an athlete is a person who, on the field of sport, shows courage, diligence determination, perseverance and effort in attaining a higher station in performance. I believe an athlete lives by a code that says constant and never ending improvement and integrity will guide their every day efforts to better themselves in their sport.
If you agree with my definition and agree that sports success in competition defines only one aspect of success, and that success is common over all sports and over all athletes, and the attainment of such notoriety should be equal whether by an Olympic swimmer, a high school javelin thrower or a Para Olympic hand biker. The we agree that it’s time to stop having a separate Olympic game for the Para Olympian or the Special Olympian. We should welcome all athletes to the top level of sports competition equally. When Alex Zanardi switched from powered racing to hand bike racing he stayed the same man: a driven, goal oriented athlete that is an inspiration to every person on the field of play or off. That is the definition of an athlete, and no use of the term “para” or “special” was even needed.