A gold medal in the Paralympic Games, an international sporting event for disabled athletes that occurs every four years, is worth less than a gold medal in the Olympic Games. That’s the message being sent by Latvian President Valdis Zatlers, who has yet to publicly acknowledge the accomplishments of athlete Aigars Apinis.
Apinis won the gold medal Sept. 8 in the discus throw, setting a world record in the process. The Paralympic Games continue through Sept. 17 in Beijing—the same venue as the just-concluded Olympic Games.
But unlike when Latvian BMX cyclist Māris Štrombergs won gold in the Olympics, Zatlers and his office have been oddly silent in congratulating Apinis.
It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Apinis competes from a wheelchair, would it?
Latvian athletes won a full set of medals in the Beijing Summer Games. Zatlers and other government officials were there to cheer on Latvia’s athletes and to see some of the victories. Štrombergs won the gold, Ainārs Kovals got silver in the men’s javelin throw, and weightlifter Viktors Ščerbatihs earned a bronze in his weight class. Each time, Zatlers was quick to congratulate the athletes. His press office dutifully sent out releases to the media noting the president’s message of praise.
But Apinis has been shut out. Even after winning a second medal, a silver in the shot put on Sept. 12, the president’s office has not uttered a word.
When I contacted Apinis by e-mail after his gold medal victory, he replied that the only Latvian official who had sent a congratulatory message was Edgars Šneps, the assistant state secretary for sport in the Latvian Ministry of Education and Science. Apparently, even Education Minister Tatjana Koķe—who was present with an entourage in Beijing for the Olympics and issued several press releases congratulating Latvian athletes—could not be bothered to pick up the phone or a pen.
“Yes, in the last Paralympic Games, the president (Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga) was quick to congratulate us,” Apinis said.
“They probably are busy as always,” Apinis said about the government officials, “and it may not seem important, but we are carrying Latvia’s name in the world and the Latvian flag is flying.”
To be fair, it has been a busy week for the president. On Sept. 8, the day Apinis won his gold medal, the president’s calendar included an interview with Latvian Independent Television, working on pardons and a meeting with Saeima Chairman Gundars Daudze. The next day he had a full slate of meetings with the new ambassadors from Finland, New Zealand and Denmark, as well as with the foreign minister of Iceland and the head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe. Sept. 10 and 11 were no different. Plus there were preparations to make for the Sept. 12 visit to Rīga by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
When Vīķe-Freiberga in September 2004 sent a note of congratulations to Apinis and teammate Edgars Bergs for their medal victories in the Athens Paralympics, she was in New York—also with a full slate of meetings and presentations.
Curious about why Zatlers and Koķe were mum on the athlete’s accomplishments, I e-mailed their press secretaries. I am still waiting for a reply three days later.
The message from the president and others seems clear. Win a medal in the Olympics, where the “able bodied” compete, and we will take notice at the highest levels. Get one in the Paralympics and an underling will get in touch without any fanfare.
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