The Controversy Over Olympic Ring Tattoos

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Photo: Mike Shea Used with Permission
Photo: Mike Shea
Used with Permission

For most people, having a tattoo is a meaningful thing. The GeekDad and GeekMom writers recently shared the stories behind their own tattoos. I was pleased to share a children’s book with you called Tell Me a Tattoo Story. I don’t even have a tattoo (yet) but here I am writing yet another post about body ink, all because I stumbled upon a story that spoke to my heart, posted by an amputee friend on Facebook.

Mike Shea is an athlete. Yes, he happens to click on a prosthetic leg when he gets up in the morning. But his life revolves around sports, and gyms and physically pushing himself on a regular basis. He’s a super athlete. The kind that lost his leg in 2002, in a boating accident, and eight years later moved to Winter Park, Colorado, to pursue the sport he had always loved – snowboarding. Today he is one of the top adaptive snowboarders in the world. Just a short time after entering competitive adaptive snowboarding, Mike was bringing home X Games medals. Then the Sochi Paralympics rolled around.

Photo: Mike Shea Used with Permission
Photo: Mike Shea
Used with Permission

Mike had a silver medal around his neck on the flight home from Sochi. And he had an appointment with a tattoo artist on his mind. From the time Mike was a little guy, he had watched the Olympics closely. He dreamed of being a professional athlete. When he lost his leg, his dream didn’t die. It was just adapted a bit.

Mike got his Olympic rings tattoo in honor of his participation, and medal-winning run at the Paralympics. And now, it seems, when he next competes in the Paralympics, he will be forced to cover them up.

Photo: Mike Shea Used with Permission
Photo: Mike Shea
Used with Permission

That’s right. The International Paralympic rules state that “body advertisements are not allowed in any way, whatsoever (this includes tattoos and symbols).” That might seem like a reasonable request until you find out that athletes participating in the regular Olympics are not required to cover their Olympic ring tattoos.  Only Paralympic athletes have to follow this rule.

The IPC spokesman said the ruling is in place to promote the Paralympic movement, that they don’t want to confuse the public. Excuse me? Seeing a well-earned Olympic rings tattoo on an athlete who competes with one leg might confuse the public? Give the public some credit.

Photo: Mike Shea Used with Permission
Photo: Mike Shea
Used with Permission

I understand the need for promotion when it comes to sports that allow athletes of all abilities to compete. As an amputee myself, I’m a huge fan of the Paralympics. Which is why I don’t think we should be micro-managing the athletes who train so hard to compete.

Again, you might say, “Well, why don’t the Paralympic athletes get a tattoo of the Paralympic games logo? That sounds logical enough. Except that the Paralympic logo has changed three times, just in Mike’s lifetime. The Olympic rings date back to 1913, and they aren’t going anywhere.

Plus, for athletes who compete with different abilities, the Paralympics are their Olympics. These are the games they watched as kids. Mike, the athlete who earned those rings, says it best. “My earliest desire to be an Olympian started long before I lost my leg. I recall watching the 1996 Olympic Games, when Michael Johnson broke the 400m record. Watching that on TV was a moment I will always remember and it’s something that stuck with me for a long time. Because of this early childhood dream, the Olympic rings had more significance to me. It represented a lifelong goal and my accomplishments as an athlete. Although my disability classifies me as a Paralympian, I will always be an Olympian at heart.”

Hopefully, this rule is just an oversight, and with enough feedback the International Paralympic Committee will decide to change it. After all, Mike has a couple more years before he hits the slopes in South Korea. And I’ll be rooting for him, and his well-earned Olympic rings, every step of the way.