Aug 062003
Authors: Shandra Jordan

Three Paralympic athletes filed a lawsuit July 28 against the United States Olympic Committee alleging discriminatory practices under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

Paralympians Scot Hollonbeck, of Atlanta, Tony Iniguez, of Aurora, Ill., and Jacob Heilveil of Bothell, Wash., claim in the lawsuit that the USOC violates federal law by providing benefits to Olympic athletes that they deny to Paralympic athletes, according to a press release from the three.

Included in the lawsuit is a breach of contract claim by Vie Sports Marketing, which Hollonbeck founded in 2001. He claims the USOC didn’t compensate Vie for work he did marketing the Paralympic team.

The USOC is still studying the complaint and does not have an official response to the lawsuit yet.

They issued a statement regarding Paralympic support on July 28 in which they outline monetary and other support given to Paralympians and deny having violated the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There is no such discrimination on the basis of disability at the United States Olympic Committee,” said Jeff Benz, the general counsel for USOC.

Benz said the USOC provides benefits to all athletes – including Paralympians – such as training centers, sports science medicine and coaching, testing education and coaching, brand development and marketing, legal advice, administrative services and money to travel to the games.

Benz said with limited resources, there are necessarily differences in what each group receives.

“(The Paralympic program) is a separate program. It is not the same as the Olympic program,” Benz said. “We do not provide the same benefits. Are we required to by law? We don’t think we are. We necessarily must make decisions about how we allocate a limited pool of resources.”

Hollonbeck’s claims that USOC refused to compensate Vie for work they did and blocked access to other sponsors is also denied in the statement.

“By this action the USOC destroyed significant opportunities to increase Paralympic funding and breached its contract with Vie sports,” Hollonbeck said in the release.

The USOC paid Vie $400,000 and then elected not to continue its relationship with the company, according to the statement.

Benz said the Paralympics have, for the first time in 2002, signed a major sponsor, The Hartford, and more sponsors are expected.

The USOC was created by Congress to support the Olympic team. In the mid-90s they voluntarily became the Paralympic committee as well, Benz said.

“By law, the USOC was charged with developing and fielding the most competitive Paralympic team possible,” Benz said.

Benz and the statement both say that expenditures from the USOC on Paralympic athletes and the Paralympics have been growing substantially over the past several years, including performance-based funding for athletes and increased coverage of the games.

The lawsuit claims that one grievance is the limited amount of participation from Paralympians allowed in governance of USOC.

“We can not even sit on the board of our own National Paralympic Committee outside of a single, token disability seat, Iniguez said in the press release.

Benz said the governing council is currently in the process of reform, so the composition of the board will change substantially over the next several months.

Currently there is one dedicated seat on the 123-member board for a Paralympian and seven possible dedicated seats to representatives of disabled sports organizations, Benz said.

Benz also said there are other opportunities in which Paralympians participate including having representatives on the Athletes Advisory Council.

“They are being included and being allowed to participate in governance of the USOC,” Benz said.

The United States is the only country, Benz said, that has one organization for both the Paralympic and the Olympic teams.

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