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Deaflympics an Opportunity for Athletes to Break Sound Barrier

Thousands of deaf athletes are in Taiwan for the 21st summer Deaflympics. Athletes and organizers say the games are an opportunity for the deaf to showcase their abilities.

As the Ukrainian woman's basketball team squares off against Chinese Taipei, the game sounds like any other. Shoes squeak against the floor. Referees whistle when fouls were made. A bullhorn sounds indicating timeouts. But because the players are deaf, backboard-mounted lights also flash to insure the players know what is going on.

Maryna Liferova is the sign language interpreter for the Ukrainian team. After the game, she says the players have no trouble communicating with referees, or each other, on the court.

Translating for point guard Anastasiya Danilova and forward Natalia Dulida, Liferova says they understand everything. They know the techniques, the rules and the tactics of the game. They also know the gestures.

Nearly 4,000 athletes have come from more than 80 countries to take part in the games this year. That is 300 more than during the last summer Deaflympics in Melbourne in 2005. There are 20 sports this year, three more than were played four years ago. The games are sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee.

To ensure good communication with the competitors, officials and referees must also be deaf. Special equipment has been installed so that Olympians can rely on sight to know when to go and when to stop.

"For athletics, track and field and for swimming, there's kind of like a traffic light. A red light means get into position. Yellow light means ready. Green is go. And for example, in taekwondo or judo, when the referee calls a foul, all the lights will start shining," said Emile Sheng, the chief executive of the Taipei Deaflympics organizing committee.

Despite the adaptations, deaf athletes do face additional hurdles. In much of the world, there are not enough coaches who can communicate in sign language. Japanese table tennis coach, Shinji Sato, says he often writes instructions on a board. But he says his players are no less capable than players who hear.

He says they are also athletes, regardless of whether they can hear or not. They consider themselves athletes here to participate in the games.

And just as at the regular Olympics, communication among participants from different countries can be an issue at the games. Sign languages vary from country to country, and many are not well known internationally.

But the athletes are able to overcome language barriers. Many use a sort of internationalized sign language that communicates ideas and needs. That helps as the athletes meet deaf people from other countries; something advocates say is an important part of the experience of the games.

Liferova says it is very interesting to talk to everyone here. Sign language, she says, helps them communicate in all parts of the world.

Despite extensive training, few deaf athletes make a name for themselves outside of deaf sporting competition. An exception is Terence Parkin, a deaf swimmer from South Africa. Parkin took home a silver medal in the 200-meter breast stroke at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Considered a hero in the deaf community, Parkin is competing in road cycling at the Taipei Deaflympics.