After a stroke at the age of 2, Eli Wolff went on to become a star soccer player while working to level the playing field for disabled athletes around the world.
Photo by Christopher Churchill
“It was the funnest game, a crazy game,” he says, his joy still fresh a decade later.
Out on the field, Wolff doesn’t see limitations, just opportunities to score. But to reach that level of competition, disabled athletes need a chance to play and learn their game. They need access to facilities and equipment, they need a chance to train and be coached; they need recognition. Traditionally, the disabled have been excluded from mainstream sports, their playing viewed as rehabilitation or socialization rather than athletic competition.
That picture is changing, and Eli Wolff is wielding one of the paintbrushes. In December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which features a section on sports drafted by Wolff and Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. The treaty, which recognizes sports as a human right for the disabled, calls on nations to create laws and other measures to include people with disabilities in recreational, leisure, and sporting activities. It’s not just about the right to compete; it’s about the right to move, to play, to express your body.
Wolff, a founder of Sport in Society’s disability program and its manager of research and advocacy, coordinated the effort, reaching out to a vast network of groups.
“Most of the sports community had no idea what was going on,” he says, sitting in a cafe at Northeastern. “I communicated with organizations all over the world, trying to make sure it was an essential part of the treaty.”
Wolff, who will turn 30 in April, is many things: a PhD candidate in the law, policy, and society program at Northeastern, a leading researcher and educator in the nascent field of disabled athletics, a retired international athlete, and a newlywed. He is forthright and relentlessly positive, and his resolve is a thing made of steel and courage.
“His passion is hard to deny,” says Peter Roby, director of Sport in Society.
Born with a hole in his heart, Wolff survived a stroke during surgery when he was 2, leaving him with partial paralysis on his left side. From his first venture onto the soccer field as a 5-year-old, he was smitten.
“Soccer was the place where I could really feel free, a safe place,” says Wolff, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Washington, D.C. “Even at an early age, I was in the zone when I was running. My body would loosen up.”
In high school, Wolff played on the Milton Academy varsity as a senior and was introduced to the US national team for the disabled at 17. As a freshman at Brown University, he approached varsity coach Mike Noonan about working out with the team.
“Eli is obviously a driven young man,” Noonan says. “Anybody that represents your country at that level, we’re honored to have him.”
Wolff played in three Pan Am Games for the Disabled as well as the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games. At Brown, he began researching the relationship between US sports organizations and disabled athletes, and when he graduated in 2000 and joined Sport in Society, he was already a leader in the field.
“My interest in disabled sports opportunities started in middle school,” Wolff says. “I sort of had a consciousness and sense of how people were recognizing differences based on disability and other things and placing value judgments – ‘You’re different, and you’re less than me.’ ”
In 2000, Wolff organized a brief for the US Supreme Court on behalf of disabled-sports organizations in support of golfer Casey Martin in his case against the PGA Tour, in which Martin successfully sued to be allowed to use a cart to accommodate a circulatory disorder in his leg. Until that point, Wolff says, “the whole idea of persons having a right to play hadn’t been thought of in the disabled community, but it resonated pretty quickly.”
It is Wolff’s mission to get sports organizations, particularly the Olympic movement with its global reach, to broaden their views. Disabled athletes now are segregated from able-bodied competitors. For example, he explains, the Paralympic Games are a division of the United States Olympic Committee yet cannot use the logo of the five interlocking rings, and there is only a limited connection between the Olympics and the Paralympics, even though they are held just two weeks apart.
Wolff wants organized sports – whether recreational, amateur, or pro – to accommodate and include divisions for disabled athletes. Where are the track events for blind runners or amputees at state track meets? Where is the collegiate wheelchair basketball league? Wolff’s next challenge is making this work. The biggest obstacles are money and imagination, a familiar refrain. It was only 35 years ago that most sports organizations thought women couldn’t compete in sports or that they didn’t want to, and that schools and colleges couldn’t accommodate them. They were wrong.
“I can remember growing up and going to watch the Boston Marathon,” Noonan says. “We never saw anyone in a wheelchair, and now they’re the first ones [in the race], and they get just as big a cheer.” He adds: “Without people like Eli, things would never progress.”
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Credit: BARBARA MATSON – Barbara Matson is a staff writer for the Globe’s sports department.