Chuck Aoki: Not an Olympian

The US wheelchair rugby player was recently referred to as an “Olympian.” He explains why that stuck out to him. 27 Jun 2015
Chuck Aoki

Chuck Aoki

ⒸLoren Worthington

Have you ever been called something you are not, or had someone call you an “expert” in a subject you do not know much about?

It is not a good feeling when this happens, especially if the title or knowledge is something that must be earned. I had this happen to me just the other day.

I was attending my brother’s high school graduation, and I ran into a former teacher of mine. He has always followed my athletic career and has always been very supportive of me. As it happened, he was giving a speech at the event and mentioned how good it was to see “Chuck Aoki, the Olympian.”

For some reason, this stuck with me through his entire talk.

“Chuck Aoki, the Olympian.”

He meant this as a high praise, just like the dozens of others who have called me an Olympian before.

So why was I feeling like such a fraud?

I was confused by my emotions. After all, I am a Paralympian. I spend a lot of my time explaining how the Paralympics are “just like” the Olympics, how Paralympics simply means “parallel Olympics.”

I have written about how Paralympians train just as hard as Olympians, how we are no different than Olympians. So why did being called an “Olympian” feel so wrong?

I dug into my emotions. Was I really a fraud?

No, of course not.

I train hard. I have competed and won a medal at a Paralympic Games. So what was really going on?

It had to be something deeper. After all, there is no difference between Olympians and Paralympians, right?

I have always said that. And I still believe it. But it occurred to me, as I was thinking about my problem, that if there is truly no difference, why are the Games separate? Why even have the Paralympics, if Paralympians are truly no different from Olympians?

We are different. But here is the thing — I was equating being different to being less than, a negative thing. Especially as persons with impairments, we strive to be equal in every way possible.

In our noble effort to be seen as equals, we lose the essence of what makes us unique. Overcoming physical challenges in our lives to become elite athletes is how Paralympians are different from Olympians. Our ability to inspire others with what we have been able to do in spite of our physical challenges is a crucial part of being a Paralympian. After all, the Paralympic vision says we should “Inspire and excite the world.” Which brings me back to my original question: Why did it feel wrong to be called an Olympian?

I realise now that I did not really feel like a fraud. What felt so wrong was that calling me an Olympian takes away from what I have achieved in becoming a Paralympian. The physical challenges I grew up with, the struggles I went through, these are all cheapened by calling me an Olympian instead of a Paralympian.

Now, it is OK if you have called a Paralympian an Olympian. It was an honest mistake, and one with good intentions. But it is important to recognise the difference: Paralympians and Olympians are both inspiring and incredible athletes. We each deserve to have our uniqueness acknowledged and embraced.

Love it? Hate it? Ideas you' would like to see me explore? Let me know on Twitter at @Aoki5Chuck. Thanks for reading!