Before major sporting events like the Paralympics currently running in Tokyo, Jörg Frischmann hears the question again and again: When and how can the Olympic and Paralympic Games merge? The head of the Parasport department at Bayer Leverkusen has long been concerned with inclusion – with the equal participation of people with disabilities. He does not consider the combination of the two major sporting events to be feasible. And not useful either. “It is more important that we bring our structures together on a day-to-day basis,” says Frischmann. Training facilities, physiotherapy, advanced training: In Leverkusen, athletes with and without disabilities benefit from the same offers. “We campaigned for inclusion even before nobody talked about it.”
The German team is represented by 133 athletes at the Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo. 14 of them, more than ten percent, come from one club: TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen. These include athletics winners and medalists such as Markus Rehm, Léon Schäfer, Johannes Floors and Ingrid Bensusan. In Leverkusen, however, it is not just about the production of precious metal, says Jörg Frischmann, but also about the socially conscious development of parasports. What are the reasons for this? And what can other clubs learn from Leverkusen?
The foundation dates from the early 1950s. The chemical company Bayer offered its employees who had been wounded in the war a range of sports for their leisure time. In the 80s, competitive sport was added. And very early on, disabled athletes, swimmers and volleyball players trained together with non-disabled athletes. “With this awareness, we have further professionalized our structures,” reports Frischmann.
The 58-year-old has been coordinating parasports in Leverkusen for 23 years. He himself has lived with malformations of his hands and feet since he was born. As a teenager he tried a lot, for example went swimming, played table tennis. At the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona he won gold in the shot put, and he also studied at the Sports University in Cologne. Frischmann made contact with hospitals, rehabilitation centers and self-help groups. He regularly receives news from his network about where young people could develop an interest in sport after an amputation or after an accident. As a distraction, as therapy – or as a career opportunity. 97 percent of disabled people in Germany have acquired their disability in the course of their lives. Only a few make it to the top in competitive sports.
The distances in Leverkusen are comparatively short between the training hall, physiotherapy and sports psychology. Many medal winners had moved to Leverkusen for these special conditions because there were no barrier-free bases in their hometowns and sports clubs showed little interest in people with disabilities. “Our 6500 disabled sports clubs cannot satisfy all needs in terms of space,” says Friedhelm Julius Beucher, President of the German Disabled Sports Association, DBS and do sports together without disabilities with low material costs and gain understanding for one another.
In countries such as Great Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, athletes with and without disabilities are organized in the same association structures, they benefit from the same bonus rules, youth competitions or anti-doping measures. In Germany, the German Olympic Sports Confederation DOSB and the DBS tend to work side by side. This also applies to many professional associations. The 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin provided an example of this: the competitions for Olympic and Paralympic athletes were organized and marketed separately. Beucher believes that inclusive ideas should be made better known not only by the DBS, but also by the DOSB.
Bayer Leverkusen shows where the direction can go. As a trainer, Steffi Nerius, for example, accompanied the long jumper Markus Rehm to the top of the Paralympic world. Nerius herself was a successful javelin thrower, winning Olympic silver in 2004 and the world title in 2009. As a trained sports teacher, she took care of contacts between clubs, schools and sports boarding schools in Leverkusen. But such an interest in parasports on the part of an Olympic athlete is by no means a matter of course, says Jörg Frischmann: “Many trainers from the Olympic field do not dare to approach disabled people. That is why we aspirants should confront parasport in their basic training. “
Frischmann and his colleagues develop inclusive ideas at the grassroots level. In one of the many projects, elementary school children with disabilities do gymnastics with their non-disabled friends and siblings. For athletes of older age groups, Frischmann tries to establish contacts between parents and prosthesis manufacturers. A number of former and current Leverkusen athletes such as Heinrich Popow or Markus Rehm have learned the profession of orthopedic technician themselves. Both try to motivate other people to participate in sports, games and exercise through their familiarity. According to the federal government’s participation report, 55 percent of disabled people in Germany are not physically active at all.
Only a few clubs in Germany pursue a broad inclusion approach; in the area around Bayer Leverkusen, for example, the Cologne 99ers in wheelchair basketball. The club also invites non-disabled people to training and games, says the Cologne inclusion activist Ali Alssalami from the »Sozialhelden« association: »Many people are reluctant to sit in a wheelchair. But once you sit down, your fear of contact disappears very quickly. «Sample centers like those in Cologne and Leverkusen have been working for decades to remove these inhibitions. With the high-profile medals in Tokyo, they may now be able to go one step further.