Should An Olympic Medalist Play Up His Brother’s Disabilities?

Yesterday, I watched Canadian freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau, 26, win the gold at Sochi. The camera panned to his brother, Frederic, wildly cheering him on, joy and pride beaming out of him. Soon, Alex had pulled Frederic over the security barrier and they hugged. Alex dedicated his gold medal to his big brother.

Frederic has cerebral palsy. It’s legendary by now that he has inspired his brother throughout his career, most famously when Alex won gold in Vancouver. As Alex told reporters, “Whatever I do in my life, my brother is my real inspiration. Just like you or I, he has dreams and most of them are not realizable to him…. Every day I feel very lucky to be a normal person that has the chance to go after his dreams. He does not have that chance. And for respect to him, I need to go after that. With his motivation he would be four-time Olympic champion…. He lives his dreams through me.”

I cried when I watched the brothers hug. And then, I cringed a little when Alex spoke. As much genuine brotherly love as there was, what he said emphasized the “dis” part of his brother’s disability. This is the opposite of what I wish for my son, Max, who has cerebral palsy: I want the world to see his abilities.

When we are around other kids and they ask why Max doesn’t speak like they do, I’ll explain that he does communicate, just in his own way. If his iPad and speech app are handy, Max can show them how he uses it to voice his thoughts. When other kids in the neighborhood have asked why Max can’t skateboard, I’ll say his muscles aren’t yet up to it—but then I’ll point out that he rides his bike really fast. Sometimes, they’ve had races.

People are so used to looking at kids like Max and feeling bad for them. I don’t want the pity; that does Max no good. In fact, it further impairs him. I feel it’s my job, as Max’s mom (and senior publicist), to show the world what he can do.

In a video NBC aired, Alex tears up as he says that if his brother weren’t “handicapped,” he probably would be an Olympic champion—the two used to ski together as kids. Their mother speaks of Frederic’s joy for life. And yet, it is so clear Frederic has ability. He plays chess with his brother. He’s selling his art to benefit the Quebec Cerebral Palsy association.

This mourning of a brother who will never win Olympic gold gets to me. Heck, how many bazillions of people who don’t have disability lack that kind of athletic prowess? How many people are ever Olympic champions? Only a very, very select few.

The entire world has warmed to a story about two brothers, one whose amazing skiing is powered by a brother who will never achieve that. I love that Alex and Frederic have the relationship they do. But I wish this were another story: About two brothers who each have their own special abilities.

From my other blog:

The paradox of disability inspiration and may I admire you, please?

Those special need parent OMG moments

Jobs for people with disabilities, and a flash of hope

 

Images: Screen grab, 2014OlympicsSochi video; screen grab, NBC Olympics video

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