Meet Canada's Chef de Mission for the Paralympic Games
Dr. Gaétan Tardif has been involved with the Paralympic Games throughout the past decade and is the London 2012 Chef de Mission for the Canadian team. Tardif is a professor in the Department of Medicine and the Chief Medical Officer at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.
Before leaving for London, Tardif discussed the Paralympic Games with writer Gavin Au-Yeung.
How do you feel about being the Chef de Mission for Canada’s Paralympics team?
I’m really happy to do it and I’ve been working towards it. I’ve been assistant Chef de Mission for Beijing and Vancouver, so it was the logical progression. And I knew London was going to put together a great event.
It is the birthplace of Paralympics, so being able to be the Chef de Mission in London is even more significant.
What are your responsibilities for the Paralympic Games?
Leading up to the Games, my work is more logistics focused. In the past two years we’ve visited London a few times to examine the site and put together a support staff. Other tasks include hotel bookings and obtaining event tickets for [athletes’] family members. Furthermore, I make sure all the teams are okay, and everything is going smoothly leading up into the Games.
When the Games come, besides a few media events, I’m hoping my job will only be cheerleading. But you never know what could happen; I need to ensure that the athletes are ready to compete and are well supported. Best case scenario: I go to a lot of sports, and lose my voice (laughs).
How did you first get involved with the Paralympic Games?
I’ve worked with athletes as a sports medicine and rehab doctor. I applied to go to Sydney for the 2000 Paralympic Games and I got on the team. Before then, I had worked with able-bodied athletes, but I discovered I really enjoyed working with the Paralympics. And I’ve been to every Games since.
My previous roles include team doctor, chief medical officer, assistant Chef de Mission, and now Chef de Mission.
What do you think makes the Paralympic Games unique?
First, they are not that different [from the Olympics] – it is still elite sport. What makes them unique is that pretty much every Paralympic athlete has gone through something dramatic. It changes their approach to life; it changes their appreciation of people around them.
This could have to do with culture; I mean up until recently, Paralympics did not have a whole lot of money and popularity. A lot of Paralympic athletes I work with smile and thank me. And sometimes able-bodied athletes don’t embrace being part of the team as much.
Do the Paralympics help change the perception of the physically disabled?
I think it does, and I’ve seen examples in the past: Beijing greatly improved their accessibility infrastructure after the 2008 Games. And one of the goals for Sochi  is to change the negative perception of people with disabilities.
One of the rehab sciences assignments is to have students go around Toronto in a wheelchair for a day. The students don’t talk much about the difficulty of getting around. What they talked about was the sympathetic stares. But obviously if you had a spinal cord injury or were born with disability, that’s who you are.
The Paralympics helps people recognize participants as athletes, not just someone with a disability.
How have the Games grown in the past few decades?
There’s definitely been growth in the past few years, and that’s largely attributed to its growing acceptance.
Funding and grants have allowed growth. Grants are important because they help individuals interested in participating even if the proper opportunities and programs may not be present. For example, I’ve played some wheelchair basketball, and it’s a lot of fun. But outside Toronto, in smaller places, it may be difficult to organize a group of people to play.
Social media also helps to shows others that the Paralympic events can be a lot of fun. And by spreading the word, we can also expand the game by encouraging other disabled athletes to participate.
Which events are you most looking forward to at the Paralympic Games?
I’ll always have a fondness for swimming and cycling, because those were the first sports I worked with. And wheelchair basketball and rugby are both fabulous sports as well. However, I’m always surprised by a new event; I had a lot of fun watching the sailing events in Beijing.
What can we expect from this year's Canadian team?
We are aiming for a top eight medal finish.
We’ve scored top three before. But now more countries are participating. Larger countries such as China are more involved with the Paralympics and are sending more athletes, which makes our life more difficult in terms of getting medals. By contrast, Canada is a fairly small country with great health care and good safety standards. So as a small country, I think a top eight finish will speak really well.
How have U of T and Toronto Rehab Institute helped prepare for your role?
Managing operations is something I do at the hospital. Not a lot of doctors get that experience so it definitely helps my credentials. I also have a better understanding of new research technology that’s available – for example, new changes in wheelchair design.
I’m not a former athlete, so my medical expertise really helps me out. I bring a different perspective than someone like Mark Tewksbury, who has won medals himself, and has a “I’ll show you the way to winning” approach. I can’t bring that perspective, but what I do bring is experience from past teams which have performed well at the Games.