MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to go back now to Sochi, Russia. That's the Black Sea resort where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were held recently. And that is where the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games are now taking place. Now this is a big difference from 1980 when the country that was then the Soviet Union did not organize a Paralympics after the summer games in Moscow. Soviet leaders reportedly said then that that was because there were no disabled people in the country, but things have changed. Some 600 athletes from 45 nations are taking part in the Paralympic Winter Games this year. We've called on Signa Butler tell us more. She is a sports reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and she's joining us by phone from Sochi. Signa, thanks so much for joining us.
SIGNA BUTLER: Thanks for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: So what's the atmosphere there?
BUTLER: It's pretty good, although, if you can decide what weather there is. And I'm a Canadian, so we love to talk about weather. But it's been everything from 20 degrees with sunburn and fog and rain, and today we actually had snow making it look like a winter games for a change.
MARTIN: What strikes you most about the atmosphere there? You were telling us that, I think, that many of the people who have never attended a Paralympics event might be surprised by just the incredibly high level of competition. So tell us what's striking you.
BUTLER: I guess what's striking me is, number one, everybody competes for a nation, but they also compete under the International Paralympic Committee flag. So you'll see people helping each other out in the cafeterias. You'll see people helping each other with their gear after races. But don't get me wrong, they're still very competitive. There are medals on the line, but the comradery is very good between nations.
The thing that strikes me is just, you know, you would - in regular society, I guess - and I don't want to use regular as a term - but the way that these athletes are moving, whether they're missing a limb, they're missing vision, they're fluid. They're well-trained. They're in shape. They can do things like shoot a puck 80 miles an hour or go down a course 120 kilometers an hour or - I don't know what that is in miles.
MARTIN: Well, so is - how accessible is the city of Sochi? A Human Rights Watch report says that while Russia has taken some steps to advance the rights and access of people with disabilities, including signing on to the U.N. convention on the rights of people with disabilities, that there is still some huge gaps across the country in terms of things like accessible transport and accessible housing. And just - there are just a lot of gaps in ways that people could actually participate more fully in the broader society. So what's it like there? Are the facilities fully accessible? Are the - how do the athletes feel about them?
BUTLER: In Sochi itself and in the mountain village in Rosa Khutor, it's very good for the athletes. I spoke to people in both the venues, and they're happy with accommodations. They're happy with transportation to the venues. The city of Sochi itself, we were there the other day - elevators to get up tall stairs, reasonable ramps to get around. But I can't speak for the whole of Russia. I know that that was a concern.
I haven't been to Moscow to see if anything's happened. I know that one thing that the International Paralympics Committee would like Russia to see is with these multi-sport games, the athletes are in the headlines. And it shows that people that have a disability -missing a limb, missing both limbs, blind or partially blind - that they can still fully participate in society. And in fact, they're doing amazing, inspiring things, whether it's on the slopes or on a wheelchair curling rink.
MARTIN: Well, you know, in fact, that's true. I mean, a lot of people see the Paralympics as a good opportunity, not just for Russia, but for the world to see what people with disabilities can do. I mean, I know that, you know, even the - sort of the advertising in the United States has featured people with disabilities in a visible way that you just do not often see, you know, in the media. So I just wondered is the television there, for example - is the coverage there - is it accomplishing that goal? Do you feel people feel that it kind of - elevating the abilities of people with disabilities in a way that perhaps is unusual for the country?
BUTLER: Yeah, I would say so. I mean, you walk around - we're often on the Olympic grounds, but the posters everywhere here feature, not just Russian Paralympic athletes, but world Paralympic athletes. And the TV coverage at night, if we're in a restaurant, it's on the TV, which is somewhat surprising to see. I know I could see from the Canadian perspective, our Paralympic committee actually bought the rights to the games and formed a conglomeration with a few other networks. And our network, CBC, has 5.3 million people tune in over English television in three days. And that's huge numbers for us.
So that's encouraging in that respect. And I talked with Sir Philip Craven, who's the president of the International Paralympics Committee, the other day. He is extremely pleased with the way things went after Vancouver 2010 and London 2010 in terms of how the regular public is embracing watching the games, reading about the game, being on social media about the games. And it's promising for the future. That's what he was most encouraged about.
MARTIN: I do have to ask you this - we have a couple of minutes left - the political tensions in Crimea and Ukraine between Russia. And the international community is very much engaged with the situation there to the point where, you know, the U.S. did not send a delegation to the opening ceremonies. And is that situation part of the atmosphere there?
BUTLER: It is. I think it's underlying the atmosphere, for sure. I can't think - you can't deny that it's there. Most of the athletes don't talk politically because they can't. They're not allowed to have any political protests on Paralympic or Olympic grounds. But it's there.
But interestingly enough - and I mentioned about the competing under one flag - a Russian any Ukraine athlete, sitting, watching the video screen behind after they finished the race to see if they were going to be in the medals - side-by-side, no shortage of tension, just two men in competition against each other. So the athletes themselves don't seem to be carrying on the same tensions that are happening between borders.
MARTIN: Or perhaps they're trying to set an example just through their presence.
BUTLER: And exactly. That's what the Ukraine president of their Paralympic committee said at his meeting when he said that they were staying at these games, that they were going to be not leaving. They were staying. He said, we're competing under peace, and we hope that the rest of the world will embrace that same peace and leave politics out of sports.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, is there any particularly - speaking of politics - is there any sport in particular or any event in particular you're most looking forward to?
BUTLER: Oh, geez. I just came back from watching Nordic skiing today in the winter atmosphere, the snow pouring down. I was freezing cold to the bone, and I've got to say the indoor sports, being Canadian, I'm looking forward to wheelchair curling and Canada winning their third straight goal and tomorrow sledge hockey between Canada and the United States in the semifinals. Oh, dear.
BUTLER: And that's to get to the gold medal games, so there you go.
MARTIN: There you go. Signa Butler is a sports reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. She joined us from Sochi. Signa, thank you.
BUTLER: My pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.