Reaching fresh sporting heights


The fifth World Dwarf Games, which are coming to Belfast next month, will be fiercely competitive, with few concessions made to the smaller height of the participants, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH.

AS DOUBLE Paralympic gold medallist Eleanor Simmonds has decisively proved, restricted growth is no barrier to sporting success. At 3ft 9in tall, the 14-year-old Beijing star is a top role model for the athletes converging on Belfast next month for the World Dwarf Games, where more than 200 competitors of restricted growth from 15 countries will take part in nine different sports. Twenty of them come from Ireland.

“We have wee tots aged five and six who run 10 metres, right up to Paralympic swimmers and runners,” says Alison Kelly, whose 15-year-old son, David, will be competing in the badminton championships. Basketball, unihoc (indoor hockey), table tennis and New Age Kurling (an indoor version of curling) will also be included in the line-up.

The fact that Belfast has been chosen to host the prestigious event is quite a coup for Kelly and her colleagues at the Dwarf Athletic Association of Northern Ireland (Daani). The first World Dwarf Games were held in Chicago in 1993, and previous host cities include Toronto and Paris. So why Belfast this time? It’s largely down to the success of the Dwarf European Championships that were held in the city in 2006, which attracted more than 100 athletes – including three of Europe’s top Paralympians – from eight different countries.

Although Daani has an inclusive agenda, aiming to give everyone of restricted height “the opportunity to get involved in sport at a level of their choice”, there are noticeably few concessions made to the smaller height of participants. That would be a retrograde step, according to Daani chairman Eugene McVeigh, from Newry, Co Down, whose 18-year-old son, Niall, is currently the European men’s singles disability badminton champion and is in with a good chance of a medal in Belfast.

“If you start fiddling about with net sizes and that kind of thing, it makes it that much harder for them to move into the mainstream,” McVeigh says.

It’s clear that pride is at stake too. Because people with dwarfism are sometimes ridiculed or patronised, it’s important for them to participate as credible competitors, without need of special arrangements. As Eleanor Simmonds says: “The motto at my training pool is, ‘coming second is not an option’.”

Like Alison Kelly, David’s mother, and the majority of other parents with growth-restricted children, McVeigh is of average height himself. But their teenage sons have achondroplasia, a genetic condition that results in disproportionately short arms and legs. The average height of adults with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism, is exactly 4ft.

IT IS ESTIMATED that there are about 150 people with dwarfism in Ireland, 50 in the North and 100 in the Republic. Is it a disability though? Opinion is divided within the dwarf community. Yet campaigners point out that there are many everyday access problems confronting even the most healthy and active growth-restricted person: most achondroplastic adults cannot reach an ATM, while petrol pumps and payphones also present their own difficulties. The positioning of air-bags in cars can be downright dangerous. But most are not deterred, having learned to live with the condition from a early age. As Alison Kelly says: “If David couldn’t reach something, he just found something to stand on.”

Eugene McVeigh says he has been delighted by the warmth and openness that most people in Northern Ireland have shown towards dwarf athletics. Perhaps there is still a way to go though.

“You sometimes get a bit of name-calling in the town, a lack of respect,” he says. “But that’s why these games are so important – they create greater awareness of dwarfism and encourage people to get involved in the sport.”

How does he feel about the term “dwarf” itself? McVeigh accepts the term – it is, after all, an international classification for the Paralympics – but he prefers to talk about “people of restricted growth”. In the US, “little people”, or LP, is a popular collective name which has yet to catch on here.

Since so many dwarfs are born to parents of average height, it is common for them not to know any other growth-restricted kids when they are young. That’s where dwarf sports come into their own, helping youngsters to make friends, have fun and gain confidence in their talents.

The fifth World Dwarf Games will be held in Belfast from July 27 to Aug 2; see